Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The Last Runaway. Tracy Chevalier. Penguin Group (USA). January 2013. 320 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780525952992.

Honor Bright is an English Quaker who has emigrated from England with her sister, Grace, who hopes to marry a former resident of her hometown. Grace, however, dies on the voyage to America and Honor arrives full of grief and confusion.  Honor also had a boyfriend in England who dropped her for another young woman, a fact that devastated Honor so much she felt she had to leave the place where she would always be labeled as the gal who was “jilted” by her one and only great love.  So the goal is for Honor to live with Grace’s fiancĂ© and his recently widowed sister-in-law, all of whom Honor doesn’t know and whose reception she wonders about frequently. 

Honor is so physically spent from sea-sickness on the horrific trip (in her mind anyway) that she stays for a few days in the town with a milliner, Belle Mills before continuing a few more hours to her destination, Faithwell.  Belle is a gritty, no-nonsense kind of gal who insists Honor do some sewing of pieces for hats as she is a very talented sewer and quilter.  Belle, however, is sensitive enough to perceive Honor’s fragile status in a land that brooks no weakness because it is so fragile itself in its pre-Civil War confused state in 1850.  Slaves are running north and it is irony of irony that Bell is helping to shelter the runaway slaves traveling the famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, Underground Railroad.  Honor finally realizes it as well which poses another problem since Quakers never, ever lie!  What to do when Belle’s brother, Donovan, a slave catcher and abrasively teasing young man, questions her about what she’s recently seen?

And how is she to respond to the attention of Jack Haymaker, who volunteers to marry her after her brief respite in the Quaker town of Faithwell fails miserably?  The conflict which is quite ever-present intensifies when Honor bucks the Quaker mentality of disapproving slavery but refusing to take any part in the runaway slaves’ precarious position on every step of their formidable journey.  Realistic decisions and a true examination of the faith where she has always found comfort leads to some surprising, very satisfying results!

This is quite a different topic from Tracy Chevalier’s normal forays into European history in her fiction, but it is finely written and in many ways surpasses her previous historical novels.  She “gets it right” for every point of view on the issue of slavery that was gradually tearing apart a nation, as well as her portrayal of a single Quaker woman who evolves from a tragic, weak woman to a principled protagonist unafraid to act out her beliefs and more the admirable because of that growth.

The Last Runaway is superb, poignant historical fiction.  Tracy Chevalier has again shown her mastery of character development and a plot that grows intriguing with every turned page, a future best-seller for sure!

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