Review of Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway

September 12, 2013 - Sharon Blanchard

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2301_TheLastRunaway_HB.inddAs a guide at the American Museum in Britain, I am always keen to read any novel set in latter-day America so Tracy Chevalier’s latest book, The Last Runaway, was an obvious pick for the suitcase this summer.

It proved a great choice. This is a captivating story of a young girl, desperately trying to find her way in a strange country, whilst coming to terms with the double tragedies of being jilted and losing her sister to yellow fever on the journey to a new life.

The central character is young Quaker, Honor Bright from Bridport who agrees to accompany her sister to Ohio where she is to marry. As she walks up the gangplank of the ship in Bristol docks, the unspoken belief that ‘I can always come back’ buoys  her up for the long voyage ahead. Little did she know her life would never be the same again.

By the time she reaches her final destination in the small Ohio town of Faithwell she has already had to endure so much.  She suffered so badly from sea sickness she knew she would never be able to contemplate the trip back to England, no matter what life threw at her in America. Then, before even reaching their final destination, she loses her sister, leaving her all on her own and reliant upon the kindness of strangers. She lodges with rough, tough milliner Belle Mills, using her sewing skills to pay her way and it is here that she has her first brush with the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and food depots set up to help escaping slaves find their way to Canada and to freedom.  She also encounters Belle’s brother Donovan, a relentless slave-catcher who takes a shine to Honor, creating one of the most engaging relationships in the book.

Honor struggles with life in America where everything is so different to the life she has been used to. The people, ‘so different from the English, are louder and speak their mind to the point of bluntness’.  Her fellow Quakers ‘follow the same beliefs but somehow the silence is different in America’. Even her beloved quilts are done differently and are called ‘comforts’ in Ohio – though as she wraps herself up in her signature quilt brought from home, tracing the names of those dear to her, it’s easy to see the comfort it brings.

As the book progresses Honor is drawn more and more into the clandestine activities of the Underground Railroad, risking the livelihood of the family with whom she eventually settles whilst battling with the moral and ethical dilemmas of slavery and her Quaker conscience. Should she act on her beliefs, whatever the consequences for herself and her family?

Quaker Square-in-a-Square Quilt

Running alongside this storyline is Honor’s great love of quilting and readers are treated to an insight into the importance of quilts in colonial life.  We learn about the differences between English and American quilting, the styles, the methods and the fabrics used but we also get to understand the way in which quilts can become the map to a young girl’s journey through life. So crucial is it that Honor has enough quilts in her chest that she cannot marry until she has recalled from England all those she gave away before she left English shores.

This book is a delight. It is a very well-researched work of fiction based upon strong historical fact surrounding an iconic period in American history. Honor’s reactions to life in America must surely echo those of the thousands who had gone before her and whose path we chart here at the American Museum.  As the book draws to a close and Honor sets off on a new chapter of her life in the west she reflects on how she has come to learn the difference between running from and running towards.  What she ultimately finds would be a fitting sequel to this multi-faceted tale of bravery and self-discovery.

TRACY 2012 USE c Eammon McCabe

Tracy Chevalier will be talking about her new book The Last Runaway at the Museum on Thursday 26 September at 6pm. There are only a few tickets left (£7 or £5 for Museum members), to book please email: membership@americanmuseum.org or call: 01225 823014 

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