I 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.