African-Americans, Civil War, Fugitive Slave Act, historical fiction, Ohio, race relations, slavery, Society of Friends, Tracy Chevalier, Underground Railroad, United States
Review: The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier
Penguin, 2013. 305 pp. $27.
In 1850, a young Quaker woman from Dorset, England, sets out for America with her sister, who’s engaged to marry a man in Faithwell, Ohio. But the sister dies en route, so Honor Bright (too cute a name by half) arrives in Faithwell bereft and alone. She’s also unexpected, for she decided to accompany her late sister on a whim, having been jilted by her English fiancé.
Instead of acceptance and welcome from her fellow Friends, Honor faces criticism of her accent, clothes, and introspective character. The one thing they admire is her ability to sew a quilt, which surpasses anyone else’s, though even there, they find ways to turn that against her. Sewing is her solace, her gift, her art (not that she’d call it that), and a respite amid so much else she dislikes. To Honor, Americans seem blunt and intrusive, and her surroundings, transient–buildings are ramshackle wood, and people act as if they’ll move further west at any moment (as some do). Worse, she can no longer stay in the house that took her in, so to anchor herself in Faithwell, she must marry into this alien community.
However, that’s the least of it. Honor believes implicitly in the Friends’ creed that slavery is plain wrong, but that’s not how things go at Faithwell. Many runaway slaves come through Ohio, and the Fugitive Slave Act makes it a criminal offense to harbor or aid them. To Honor’s disgust and dismay, most Friends obey the law, for fear of losing their farms or going to prison.
If Honor persists in her view, she’ll be an outcast, but if she gives in, she’ll be untrue to herself. Her new neighbors tell her that slavery is an abstract concept in Britain (where it’s illegal), but in Ohio, a complex reality that doesn’t allow certainties. Their argument appalls her, but she’s at their mercy. What she does about it makes an excellent, compelling novel. I’ve read four of Chevalier’s, and I think The Last Runaway is her best since Girl With a Pearl Earring.
Chevalier makes terrific use of the tension involving runaway slaves, a slave catcher to whom Honor feels attracted, her place in Faithwell, and a potential mother-in-law who’s a nasty piece of work. But I especially like how the author unfolds Honor’s character, showing how she gradually overcomes her fear of a wild, intimidating landscape to enjoy its beauties, the first aspect of her new home to excite her. She finds pleasure in fireflies, hummingbirds, and other unfamiliar creatures, and learns to accept the products of the soil:
Honor closed her eyes and bit down, slicing the kernels with her teeth. She opened her eyes. Never had she tasted anything so fresh and sweet. This was corn in its purest form, a mouthful of life. Turning the cob, she bit again and again, to savor the taste, so different from the other corn dishes she’d eaten over the past weeks.
Chevalier also contrasts point of view, revealing Honor’s feelings in plaintive, lonely letters home, even as she tries to bear up under intense pressure. I like that touch, though the articulate, perfectly grammatical prose made me wonder whether Honor had really written them, considering that the narrative says nothing about her schooling or her reading, except for the Bible. Similarly, a few phrases from a key African-American character sounded modern to my ear, though I haven’t researched them and could be wrong.
In sum, though, The Last Runaway hits the mark, and I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.