107 of 110 people found the following review helpful
Tracy Chevalier is one of my favourite authors and she has a way of making history come alive in her novels which have subjects as diverse as Vermeer and fossils. In The Last Runaway she switches her focus to America, in particular 1850s Ohio where the young English Quaker, Honor Bright starts a new life very different to her quiet upbringing in Dorset, England.
It is a time of great upheaval in America as the country inches towards civil war with a variety of runaways, both black slaves and white settlers, trying to forge a better life for themselves. Honor finds life hard as a single woman unaccustomed to the American way but she is aided by the flamboyant Belle Mills, a milliner, who takes Honor under her wing. Belle's brother, Donovan, sets his sights on Honor but his reputation as a dissolute slave hunter makes him an unlikely suitor.
Reminiscent of Gone with the Wind, this is a novel with strong female characters who use their wits to survive difficult times. Those travelling the Underground Railway are not the only runaways in this well-researched and eloquently written novel.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 25 June 2013
Interesting story, well paced, well written and not overly challenging or too long. Chevalier's use of a small group of characters playing out the difficulties of managing faith principles in a vast new environment where pragmatism and compromise are also essential for survival, is well balanced. You feel the struggle of the central character in coming to terms with how to manage this new way of living and the tension of all the characters' frustrations without being negatively overwhelmed. A pleasure to pick up at the end of the day for a read before bed. Great for a holiday read too.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 8 May 2013
An easy and absorbing read, but I wasn't really convinced by most of the characters. The author had obviously done a good deal of research into the various strands of the emancipation debate, and I did learn something about the reasons for the opposition to it, and also a little bit about quilting.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 18 August 2013
I was so looking forward to this as I enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring so much. The first few pages are great. However, it quickly descends into a tedious account of quilting and countryside. Some reviewers have said they found the story ridiculous. I didn't at all but I found it hard to dig out the story from so much padding.
Many of the characters are dull and plodding in their hearts and this made them hard to care for. The book could easily have been cut to half it's length; barring the initial inciting incidents, you have to move to about p170 before anything happens. Very disappointing.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 8 March 2014
This is the first Tracy Chevalier book I have read and I'm afraid I didn't like it. It is not a surprise to me to see that other critical reviewers have said this is her worst book; someone as successful must have written something better.
On the positive side, the plot is interesting and has plenty of potential; a Quaker community in 1850 America and its involvement in helping slaves make their way to the safety of Canada by offering food and shelter.
You'd imagine that living in such a frontier time and place would develop multi-dimensional strong characters, but this book is populated by cardboard cut-out goodies and baddies. Additionally, the main character, Honor Bright, a young English woman who finds herself in an unfamiliar country in completely unexpected and unplanned circumstances (she started her journey across America with her sister who died along the way), just didn't ring true for me. For example: she has come to America for a fresh start following the desertion of her intended future husband, and despite having previously had no more physical contact than hand holding and the odd kiss, Honor is soon romping in the hay with someone she has barely known, and is married within a matter of weeks. I'm not saying this couldn't happen, but surely there would have been some internal conflict going on.
The subject of quilting is a constant thread (excuse the pun!) throughout the book, and there are plenty of descriptions of various techniques, designs, colours, fabrics etc. Because quilting is an ever-present I'd have thought that the author would justify this by establishing an interest in the reader on this subject, but it seems to be taken as a given that everyone will find this subject fascinating. I'm afraid I didn't.
I get the impression that Tracey Chevalier is an out an out story teller, and she's not really trying to impart any deep and meaningful message. For me there are other writers who do this far more successfully (e.g. Khaled Hosseini with A Thousand Splendid Suns) and I'm afraid I didn't really engage with any of the characters in this story.
If this book is ever turned into a film I'd guess that it will be one of those rare occasions when the film is better than the book (like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
Not my cup of tea at all.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
THE LAST RUNAWAY by Tracy Chevalier is a slow moving but excellent historical novel that evokes a feeling of time and place. The time is the early 1850's and the place is Ohio. Chevalier tells of Quaker Honor Bright and her experiences as she arrives in the United States with her sister Grace from their home in England. Shortly after their arrival Grace contracts yellow fever and dies leaving Honor in this new and fledgling land without friends or family upon whom she can rely for assistance.
This engrossing read is driven by the evolution of not only a country but of a woman and the choices she must make as she struggles to adjust to life in a new and unfamiliar environment. Readers feel a constant sense of movement as they progress through lives where love, friendship and coping with loss are everyday occurrences and the fight for personal freedom is liberally laced with personal, legal and religious conflict.
Towns spring up overnight, individual lives are transient and homes are built of wood rather than bricks and mortar exuding an overall feeling of impermanence. Contrast between the "old world" that Honor left behind and this new land are examined right down to the differences in the make-up and quality of the patchwork quilts produced by each - - perhaps a metaphor for the disparity in attitudes and lifestyles.
Ms. Chevalier's characters leap from the page to present the reader with a look at a country and a people "all from somewhere else" who are constantly on the move. Perhaps it's a situation we've never really outgrown since we seem to continue to be a people always moving, always exploring and looking ahead for what lies beyond the next horizon.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This is not, I have to admit, vintage Chevalier. That said, it is a first class evocation of life in mid 19th century Ohio, where the winters are bitter, the summers are suffocating,and the struggle to survive is relentless. This is overlaid by a rather suffocatingly introspective society where faith and family are intertwined and you cannot shun one without shunning the other.
Honor Bright, a gentle Quaker girl fleeing a failed engagement, leaves rural England with her sister to journey to the New World in search of a new life. The sea voyage itself is horrendous, and her sister is en route to marry a virtual stranger in an alien environment. Events, however, spiral out of control and Honor is left very much to her own devices in the Quaker society to which she truly belongs in many ways, but where she is not entirely secure emotionally. She is helped and befriended by a rather more free thinking woman who is involved in the Underground Railway, assisting escaped slaves to run to Canada and freedom. This activity touches her heart and she helps as much as she can, although the need for secrecy compromises her simple faith which forbids lying.
The family into which she herself marries are horrified by the risks she is taking: there is a slave hunter in the area who could make life very, very difficult for them.
In the background, the traditional female activity of quilting provides continuity, and with its repetitive patterns, rhythms, shapes and colours, conforms to set boundaries, which reinforce the societal norms.
Honor shares her deepest feelings and inner life in letters back to her oldest friend in England, but ultimately her destiny is now in this new country in which poor slaves are not the only "runaways". The book ends with Honor embracing yet more change, but this time as a stronger and more complete person who has been challenged and not found wanting.
The sense of time and place is very strong and Honor is an engaging heroine.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
In 1850 Honor Bright decides to travel with her sister from Dorset to the US, where Grace is engaged to marry a dairy farmer living in a small Quaker community. Honor is a quiet and devoted Quaker who has been jilted by the man she thought she'd marry, so she decides a fresh start is what she needs. However things don't work out as she anticipates. The Atlantic crossing is arduous, her sister dies almost immediately after they arrive and America is nothing like she has expected it to be. The countryside is full of dangers and the Quaker community is less than welcoming. Honor is also shocked to encounter slaves who pass through the area while trying to escape from the South to freedom in Canada.
I don't want to say much more about the plot than that because I think the book is best read without knowing what's going to happen. That's not to say that there are any dramatic twists - this is a slow paced book - but I think it's more enjoyable if the plot unfolds at its own pace.
What I loved about this book - and I did love it, very much - is the way that Honor got under my skin. I felt absolutely present in the book and it was a very calming read. It reminds me in some ways of Brooklyn in the sense that it's not hugely action driven but it still draws you completely into the central character's inner life. It's a very cleverly constructed book that completely held my interest. The characters are rounded, interesting and believable (with the possible exception of Judith Haymaker). The book also feels meticulously researched. There are lots of details about quilting, Quakers and life at that time. For example, Honor uses "thou" and "thee" when she speaks to people, which I have since learned is a Quaker specific custom rather than being in more general use.
I can see why some reviewers have found this book boring or slow, but all I can say is that I didn't feel that way, at all.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 13 December 2013
I had high hopes for this book based on the reader reviews and indeed on the subject matter, the lives of Quakers at this time and the USA in the 19th Century should be both fascinating topics. Unfortunately the book consists of disproportionate detail around the titillating and high-octane subject of quilts. Fascinating.
The protagonist Honor Bright is self-obsessed bordering on narcissistic, she is self-involved, uninteresting and ultimately not very believable. All the characters were pretty one-dimensional, there was no decent character development apart from Belle who was a fully-rounded and realistic force within the book.
The Last Runaway was an easy read and succeeded in sending me to sleep every evening but I think this may have also been something to do with boredom more than anything. I wouldn't rush to buy any more of Chevalier's books.
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
I've enjoyed several books by Tracy Chevalier, and was really pleased to receive a pre-publication copy of The Last Runaway. The story is set in Ohio in the 1850s and follows a young Quaker woman's involvement in helping slaves escape on the Underground Railroad.
Fleeing heartbreak, Quaker girl Honor Bright leaves Dorset and accompanies her sister, Grace, to America. In America, Honor suffers more heartbreak and finds it very hard to adjust to her new life. Eventually, Honor marries Jack Haymaker and tries to make the best of her situation. Whilst adapting to her new life on the Haymaker farm, Honor comes into contact with slaves and helps them escape to freedom via a network of secret routes and safe houses.
The themes in this novel are fascinating, and I loved the historical setting. I enjoyed reading about Quaker life, the quilt making, and learning about how runaway slaves escaped to Canada.
I soon became immersed in Honor's story. The women Honor befriends are strong characters. Belle and Mrs Reed are particularly memorable, and Belle's brother, Donovan, is another character that stands out.
The story is beautifully written, moves along at a reasonable pace and gives a good insight into a fascinating part of American history.