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.
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.
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.
on 6 January 2016
Honor Bright, a devout Quaker, leaves England to accompany her sister Grace on a long journey to settle in Ohio where Grace's husband-to-be awaits. Grace however is dead by page 12, and Honor is left to find find a place for herself in a strange world with strange customs.
There is a lot to like about The Last Runaway and I can understand it's appeal. The characters were distinct and interesting, and the background authentic. It's obvious Chevalier knows her subjects well - slaves and slave-hunters, Quakers and quilts (more on them below!).
However, it left me feeling weary and frustrated. Honor comes across as a passive and slightly stupid innocent. She contrasts with her much more interesting spikey milliner friend Belle and the rebellious, free black woman Mrs Reed. She seems to drift, unsettled but mostly unprotesting. Maybe this is a realistic Quaker response to the conflicts Honor encounters but it's unsatisfying for the reader.
And another thing. The novel is too often repetitive and unsubtle. Ok, so a letter takes months to travel from Bridport in England to Faithwell in Ohio. And that leads to a sense of uncertainty for the writer and the reader, especially in a fast-moving world. But this point is repeated more than once. And the quilts... oh, the quilts! Quilts as currency; quilts as dowry; quilts as mementos; quilts as metaphors for the American and British attitude to life; quilts as metaphors for character. Oh dear. And to cap it all, each quilt pattern, each sewing style, is carefully explained.
There's a hackneyed love story in here too. Honor wonders why she flushes prettily at the attentions of the handsome, wicked, sexy slave catcher. She becomes bored by the good-hearted farmer who loves his cows and his mom.
And yet, this book is also built around the deadly serious topic of slavery in 19th century America. Honor is principled and wants to help runaway slaves, but is conflicted by her new families insistence that they cannot help as it would break the law. This is interesting and important stuff. But it's just too weighty for this kind of light soap-opera and ultimately feels misjudged.
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.
on 18 August 2013
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a hard act to follow and I don't think Tracy Chevalier has ever reached its heights again. I felt the characters came first in that book and the research second. In all her subsequent books, and definitely in this one, it's the other way round. I've read all her novels because I really like the subjects she chooses. I've found them interesting - but `interesting' is not enough, I want plots and memorable characters too. The Last Runaway is a frustrating read. Much of what Honor, the main character, says or writes home, is regurgitated research. It's all fascinating stuff - patchwork patterns, hat making, the making of American towns by pioneers, the `underground railroad' - but that doesn't make a story. There is no heart-thumping tension - yet hiding and helping runaway slaves was appallingly risky. Belle leapt off the page but none of the other characters came to life for me, not even Honor. I felt I was being told how I should feel about each of them, rather than them being shown clearly enough that I could make up my own mind.
Some of the writing was dull and repetitive, I'm sorry to say - characters `froze' rather often (a phrase I particularly dislike anyway); fabric was invariably `dotted'. If this wasn't by the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and was instead a manuscript by A. N. Author on a publisher's slush pile it would be returned `Could try harder'.
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.
on 1 September 2013
I am a Quaker, and as a teenager I was an English girl living in the USA (and felt equally unwelcome!) so I had a natural sympathy with the main character which may have got me more easily past some of the concerns the more negative reviewers raise.
I have read many Quaker novels - the best ones (Elphinstone's Voyageurs, de Hartog's Peaceable Kingdom, Eames's Secret Room) are written by Quakers.
I felt this book, the last runaway, had a surprisingly good understanding of Quaker views - and it was an accurate portrayal of both the good and bad aspects of real-life Quakerism. The author's extensive research will have helped with that - and it pays off. The most Quakerly people in the book, though, are the two women who aren't Quakers! That's probably sadly accurate of how legalistic meetings can become ... But it isn't always that way!
It's a good, fun read. I read it in a single day and enjoyed the story.
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, I'm afraid.
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.