30 April, 2014

The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier. Book review

Harper Collins 2013. ISBN 978-0-00-735034-6

The Last Runaway is set in Ohio in 1850. All the main characters are fictional.

Shy Quaker girl Honor Bright sails from her home in England to America, accompanying her sister who is going to join her husband-to-be. Honor herself is fleeing from having been jilted, hoping to start a new life in America. When her sister dies only a few days before reaching their destination, Faithwell in Ohio, Honor is left alone among strangers in a strange land. She finds an unexpected friend in the forthright milliner, Belle Mills, and a rather grudging acceptance among the small Quaker community of Faithwell. Ohio is still frontier country; most people are recently arrived and many are looking to move on in the future. It is also on the route used by runaway slaves from the Southern states, seeking to escape to freedom in Canada along the network known as the Underground Railroad. Honor’s conscience prompts her to help the runaways – but the Quaker family she has joined forbids her to break the law by doing so. Can Honor build a life for herself that will allow her to live with both her duty and her conscience?

The Last Runaway beautifully creates the world of small-town Ohio in the 1850s. Landscapes, buildings and way of life are described in detail, seen through the eyes of Honor to whom all is new and strange. As a result, this is a lovely book for the day-to-day detail of domestic life. Honor expects to earn her keep, and learns to apply her skill with a needle to hat-making and the unfamiliar American style of quilt-making, which uses applique designs in bold colours instead of the pieced patchwork of English quilting. Later, she turns her hand to the daily tasks of a dairy farm and the enormous amount of preserving required to store enough food to withstand an Ohio winter. I enjoyed the domestic detail, which I thought built up a convincing picture of Honor’s new world without ever becoming dull. However, I should add the caveat that I have an interest in needlework and have tried my hand and both patchwork and quilting, so these details appealed to me (and I picked up one or two useful tips from Honor and Belle). For readers without this interest, I could imagine that the detail might seem repetitive.

Honor also has to become accustomed to American social conventions – Americans are more ‘direct’ in their way of speaking (as Honor diplomatically puts it to herself) and more focused on their own concerns, compared with Honor’s previous community in England. The biggest contrast is the sense of impermanence Honor experiences in America. Coming from an established English town with a thousand years of history behind it, Honor finds the rootlessness of Ohio as disorienting as the harsh winters and the isolation. Most of the social differences, however disorienting for Honor, are relatively minor, leading to discomfort rather than disaster. The big exception is slavery. Honor abhors slavery. In England this was a simple principle to uphold, as slavery had already been abolished. In America, however, slavery is still a major part of the slave states to the south, even if not permitted in Ohio, and Honor comes into contact with it via the runaway slaves. Now she has to act on her principles, not merely think about them. If she gives aid to the runaways she risks ruin not just for herself but for her new family; if she does not, she has to live with her conscience. There is no easy answer.

Perhaps because the novel has a domestic focus, the women are the most strongly developed characters. Belle Mills in particular is a delight – generous, forthright, courageous and warm-hearted, she is just the sort of friend anyone would be glad to find in a strange country. By contrast, the men seemed almost interchangeable and a bit dull, with the exception of the rough slave-hunter Donovan who was by far the most lively and complex.

A useful Acknowledgements section at the back lists some suggestions for further reading for those who want to explore the underlying history.

Quietly insistent tale of an English Quaker girl trying adjust to a new life in small-town mid-ninenteenth-century Ohio, against the background of slavery and the Underground Railroad.


Constance Brewer said...

Thanks for this review. It sounds like a book I would like to read. And I like books that focus on women and the domestic. Not everything can be glorious battles.

Carla said...

Constance - If you like the domestic scene, this is excellent. Hope you enjoy it!