The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier: CBR5 #102/06/2013
As the coordinator of Cannonball Read 5, I just don’t have a lot of time to sit down and blog my reviews these days. I might post something on Goodreads, or exclaim! on! Facebook! that THIS BOOK is just the best. But it’s really got to be special to make me write a post.
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier is just that.
I’ve been a fan of Chevalier since I read Girl with a Pearl Earring, but some of her later works I found uneven or couldn’t finish. The Chevalier name was enough, however, to make me pick this book up and skim the premise at the library. The fact that it was from the library made me take it home. (That’s one library asset that I think is so unappreciated – the ability to check something out with no financial risk, the “What the heck” factor, if you will.)
The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, an English Quaker who accompanies her sister Grace to Ohio in 1850. Honor had been jilted and impulsively fled across the Atlantic with her sister who was engaged to marry a former neighbor, now an American. Honor’s circumstances turn tragic in the first few pages, and she’s forced to rely on people who are essentially strangers in an unfamiliar land.
Honor is also a skilled seamstress and quilter, and the details about her sewing rang true and added significantly to the story. Chevalier uses Honor’s thoughts on the difference between English and Ohioan customs in clothing, sewing, hats, quilting as a segue into comparisons of the English Friend versus American Friend communities and an examination of the strange American people.
But it’s not just the details of fabric and needles, the book is also set near Oberlin, Ohio, a major conduit of the Underground Railroad. The Fugitive Slave Act had just been passed, and a main character in The Last Runaway, a slave hunter, uses his new rights with impunity. The Quaker role in the abolition movement is not as clear cut as one would suspect, though, and it causes strife between Honor and her family as they struggle with the growing pains of a newly extended family.
The author skillfully weaves the various storylines together through Honor’s eyes, interspersing her story with the letters she has written to and received from England. Minor characters are also vividly drawn, and offset Honor’s quiet ways. Chevalier deftly concludes the narrative, tying up the ends with “a double back stitch instead of making a knot in the thread.” Honor could only approve.