Monthly Archives: June 2015

Book Review: Tracy Chevalier – The Last Runaway


runawayI never read enough, I’d be the first to admit it, but this year I’ve been trying to rectify the situation.  When my mum lent me The Last Runaway, I was intrigued: a) because I absolutely loved Girl with a Pearl Earring and b) because it is a novel by a white writer which talks about slavery.   I wanted to see how Tracy Chevalier handled the subject matter; she is an author whose work I very much admire.

The Last Runaway tells the story of Honor Bright, a young Quaker from England, who on a whim packs up her trunk and sails to America.  Once there she finds herself lost.  Everything in America:  the weather, the insects and snakes, the American morals and manners, even their methods of quilting are completely alien to Honour.

She is taken under the wing of one Belle Mills, a milliner from Wellington, Ohio. Behind the facade of her shop though, Belle is part of the Underground Railroad, a movement which assisted runaway slaves.  Whilst living with Belle, Honor finds herself drawn to Belle’s brother, Donovan, a callous slave hunter who goes against everything Honor holds dear.  The infatuation persits into her marriage with fellow Quaker,  Jack Haymaker.  When Jack’s family find out about Honor’s activities with the Underground Railroad, she finds herself torn between her new family and her old principles.

The Last Runaway has been criticised for being pedestrian and uninspiring with some reviewers saying that they would have liked to have read more about the underground railway, and about Donovan himself, who is a compelling character, and that too much of the story is taken up with quilting and millinary.  However, for me the charm of the story lay in its subtlety, that is not to say the novel lacked tension or drama – there was plenty of that.  I personally liked the metaphor of the quilt; Honor is only a very small part of a richer fabric, and her underground activities are only a small part of who she is.  Honor has time to sit quilting at a frolic, and her life is taken up with routine chores, but for slaves running away with gangrenous wounds or babies clamped to their breasts, the situation was dire.

The Last Runaway is one of the best novels I have read in a long time.  It has made me want to read more about the Underground Railroad and I shall certainly be reading more of Tracy Chevalier’s work.

Margaret Hayes: Theft of a Pair of Stockings: Seven Years



On December 1st, 1722, Margaret Hayes went into a shop and began to barter with the owner, Elizabeth Reynolds over the price of a pair of stockings.  In the middle of their discussion, she grabbed the stockings, which were on display and ran out into the street.  Alerted by Elizabeth’s cries, Margaret was pursued by a number of people and dropped the stockings to the ground just before she was apprehended.  At the trial she denied ever having gone into the shop but was found guilty of theft.  As the goods were priced at the princely sum of two shillings, Hayes faced a penalty of death by hanging.  Often in these cases the jury would take pity on the felon and devalue the stolen goods.  Mercifully, this was exactly what happened to Margaret; the jury devalued the stockings to ten pence and she was transported to the American colonies for a period of seven years.

Most surviving accounts of transported convicts focus on notorious criminals or scandalous circumstances.  However, the overwhelming majority of those transported to the colonies were ordinary men and women, convicted of petty offences.  After being handed down their sentences they promptly disappeared from the history books.

The only reason we know anything about Margaret is that she was one of the passengers on board the Jonathan, which sailed from London on February 19th, 1723.  The Jonathan was a former slave ship and was bought by Jonathan Forward for his fleet.  The difference with this vessel was that records were kept of all the convicts on board.  From the ship’s records we know that Margaret was thirty years old, she was a widow with a dark complexion.  When I was writing Five Guns Blazing, this unknown woman caught my interest.  I wondered how desperate a person must have been to have risked going to the noose all for a pair of stockings.  I wondered whether Margaret had children, and if so, what happened to them, how she would have felt being torn from those children and having to leave them behind.  I tried to build a character around Margaret and through her, show the plight of women transported to the colonies during the eighteenth century.

Conditions on board the ships were horrendous; many of the convicts died during the voyages of cholera and typhoid.  Those that survived were severely weakened by scurvy, dysentery and fever.  Convicts went on board shackled and in chains.  A hatch was opened and they went below deck, where they would spend the rest of the voyage.  Usually the chains were removed in the prison deck but sometimes not.  They were allowed on deck at intervals for fresh air and exercise.

If they survived the voyage, convicts were sold to plantation owners and worked alongside indentured servants and African slaves.  The status of convicts varied depending on the plantation; some were treated in line with indentured servants while others were subjected to the same forms of degradation as slaves, the big difference being that the convicts were only sold for the terms of their criminal sentences.

Nobody knows what happened to Margaret, or whether she made it as far as America.  Most of the convicts at that time were illiterate so there are very few surviving journals.  The Jonathan caught fire after it landed in Maryland and never made it back to England.

Don’t Give Up Your Day Job? Not if it’s One You Really Love Anyway!


tutuThis is me in my day job, all dressed up in a green tutu with glued-on flowers, as the interpreter fairy, ready to go on stage for Midsummer Nights Dream. This was quite a unique performance though because the entire cast had special needs and King Oberon was profoundly Deaf. That’s what I do for a living – I’m a sign language interpreter. My legs were shaking at the point the photograph was taken,my smile looks a bit deranged and I have to admit, I was nervous as hell. I’d spent the last few months translating the script from English into BSL and rehearsing three days a week with the cast, who despite having learning disabilities or autism learned the whole script and performed the play to a packed theatre. I don’t think there was  dry eye in the house by the end of the evening. It was a massive personal achievement for all of them and I consider myself extremely privileged to work with such an amazing group of young people. It has also been brilliant experience for me. Growing up, I was painfully shy; that’s why I loved writing so much: I could just lock myself away from everyone and let myself go. Back then, going on stage would have been my worst nightmare. I had to force myself to do a job like this, but I’m so glad I did.

Then just before Christmas, an agent telephoned me. “I love your manuscript,” she said. She didn’t usually like ‘that’ kind of book but she couldn’t put it down. “I presume you want to do this full time?” she asked.

I hesitated. “I don’t know.” I eventually said. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so honest; that was the last I ever heard from her.

The truth is though, even with the beautiful thing that is Facebook, writing can be a very solitary occupation. It has to be, because of the level of concentration involved. Now that I’ve got over most of that awkward shyness, I actually like being around other people all day, and I think it’s important as a writer that you go and experience things, meet new people and get to know them. Even with a job and a young child, I’ve still managed to write two and a half novels and a handful of children’s picture books over the past five years. Insomnia can be a great thing sometimes!

Sign language interpreting has taken me on an incredible journey. I’ve worked on child protection cases, had to impart bad news to patients on hospital wards, been involved with film festivals and volunteered in Lourdes, oh – and it’s also taken me six years of training. I can’t imagine putting my hands down and never signing again. Then again, I can’t imagine closing up my laptop and never writing again. I’m just as dedicated to both and have always thought that if you really want to do something you can always find time to do it.

Pirate Lady Rose!

Pirate Lady Rose!

The fantabulous Ailsa Abrahams invited me over to her blog today. Thanks for having me and for all that lovely tapas and sangria!

The Bingergread Cottage

Today I welcome another new writer with Crooked Cat Publishing. Coming in on the magic carpet is Emma Rose Millar.

Welcome, Emma Now, I know you like sangria and tapas so while Cam goes to get those, you sit here and tell me about your work. Lily will keep you company but if you don’t like dogs just ask her to go away. She’s very obliging like that.

Hi Ailsa. Well soon to be released is my novel Five Guns Blazing, co-written with Jamaican born author Kevin Allen. It’s an epic tale of piracy, slavery and treason spanning from the back streets of London to Barbados, Jamaica and the Bahamas and is based on the lives of pirates Anne Bonny, Mary Read, John Rackham and Pierre Bouspet. A huge amount of research went into it both from Kevin and myself but I absolutely loved writing it, especially finding out about…

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Co-writing, Transatlantic (Literary) Affairs and Other Forms of Insanity, with Kevin Allen


kevin allen

On co-writing Five Guns Blazing

I will be honest, I was a little sceptical when Emma first approached me about Five Guns Blazing. I read her message and looked at the picture and laughed to myself. A blonde haired, white woman asking me to help her write a story that involved slavery. But I was wondering what sort of writing it was. It was interesting. It got me curious about her project. But when I started reading Five Guns as it was, I knew Emma was serious and knew her stuff. When I saw what she actually wanted me to work on and the whole manuscript, well, I couldn’t say no because I was drawn in by what I read.

Helping Emma Rose Millar script the plantation, flesh out the characters on the Island, and the conditions of the plantation they were working on was one of the best things I’d ever done. I saw from the story, she had that she’d actually done her research and put a lot of effort into what she had, at the point I saw the story. She also had a vision for what she wanted from it and knew how to get there. That created another feeling; why did she need my help?

What I realized was that the more I read the more I wanted to read. It didn’t matter why she needed my help, I was happy she did. I was drawn to the story by the story. Once I started writing I wanted to write more and more. By the third week in, I was thankful Emma asked me to work on Five Guns with her. For me, it was a chance to look back. I love researching different things. History being one of them. This was a reminder that when I left Jamaica at the age of ten, I left a part of world history behind. A part of Emma’s project, Five Guns Blazing called on us to do extensive research; the old stories, the language, the differences in people. There was so much to go over. What I learned was that being Jamaican didn’t make me an expert. Sometimes I felt flat out disgusted because of the simple things I didn’t know. And felt encouraged by the reminders of some of the old stories I used to hear as a child.

As for the language differences, we both speak English. Mine has been American English for some times. I admit to being a freelance ESL teacher at one time and that helped somewhat. Not much though. The spellings of some English words and the edits I saw sometimes had me running to the dictionary and the online dictionary. Looking up words that had me raising an eyebrow. I’m pretty sure Emma must have wanted to strangle me sometimes with the word usage as well.

I would definitely say that the highlights of my efforts in helping to write Five Guns Blazing, was being thrown into a situation where I had to look at Jamaica from an outsider’s perspective. To help shape the people, their homes, their situation. That provided an outlook authors rarely see because our genre focuses are usually outside projects like these. What I learned was, Emma wasn’t a crazy white lady. She is a deep and creative thinker and a great human being. And I think she created a great story that could serve to inspire greatness in many. Thanks for inviting me on this writing journey.