Sunday 10 March 2013

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The Last Runaway is Tracy Chevalier's seventh novel and is the first time that she has set one of her historical stories in the USA.    Although the heroine of the story; Honor Bright is most certainly English, the story takes place in Oberlin, Ohio.    It is 1850 and Honor and her sister Grace have emigrated to Ohio in the hope of making a new life.  Honor was heartbroken when her intended husband found an new love, and Grace is due to marry her fiance Adam Cox who has already started to make a new and successful life in America.  Honor and Grace are Quakers, and have been brought up in a modest community in Dorset.

Sadly, Honor arrives in Ohio alone as Grace dies from the Fever during the journey.  Relying on the goodwill of strangers, Honor makes her way to the small settlement of Oberlin to join Adam Cox and his recently bereaved sister-in-law Abigail.  It becomes clear to Honor that she is not truly welcomed by Abigail, and that Adam Cox finds the situation both awkward and difficult to deal with.   Honor marries a local man, Jack Haymaker and goes to live with him and his family.

Tracy Chevalier
Honor finds a true friend in milliner Belle, although her slave-catcher brother Donovan is not such an ally and displays a unhealthy amount of interest in this quiet and modest Quaker girl.   Through her friendship with Belle, Honor soon finds herself involved with the Underground Railroad - a network of people who were sympathetic to runaway slaves who were trying to find freedom in North America or Canada..  The Fugitive Slave Act had been passed and it was illegal to assist a runaway slave, there were heavy penalties to be paid if caught.   Quakers were anti-slavery and wanted to assist the runaways, but their moral dilemma was that to do so would be to break the laws of the land.   The Haymaker family forbid Honor to assist the runaways, and this is the start of the breakdown in their relationship.  Throughout these times, Honor finds some comfort in her quilt-making, she is a fine seamstress and putting together these small pieces of material bring her some peace and make memories for her.

Tracy Chevalier has captured the sense of 1850s Ohio so well, her descriptions of both the place and people really do jump from the page, from the intense heat, to the bitterly cold winters.  The food, the fashions and the small settlements are wonderfully drawn.

This is not a fast-moving story by any means, it is gently drawn out and each character is formed steadily.  Honor, although the lead character, is not the most interesting, she can sometimes appear holier-than-thou and often is portrayed as appearing superior to those around her.  Belle, the milliner, on the other hand is a strong, feisty character, a woman who is colourful and interesting with firm principles and morals.   Belle's slave-catcher brother Donovan is something of an enigma - on the one hand he is a cruel man, and every now and again, he shows a little vulnerability.

This is a powerful novel that is full of detail about the early days of America, about how things were changing and how ordinary people tried to change things for the good.  It is an interesting look at the way of life for Quakers as settlers in a new land.

Tracy Chevalier has a ease to her writing that captures the reader's imagination so well.  I have no doubt that existing fans of her novels will enjoy this story.

The Last Runaway is published in the UK on 14 March 2013 by Harper Collins.

For more information on this story and the background, and Tracy Chevalier's other books, check out her website here.   Her Facebook page can be found here, and her Twitter account here


  1. Sounds fascinating. I loved Remarkable Creatures, and will look forward to reading this one.

  2. Sounds like you enjoyed this one as much as I did, Anne. She is a very talented writer.

    1. I was really impressed by it. Another excellent one, she rarely disappoints.