From the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring (which I read pre-blog, and loved), another historical novel of women’s lives. I recently tried reading Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, but I found I couldn’t appreciate it. No such problem with The Last Runaway.
Honor Bright is a small-town British Quaker in 1850, a young woman recently abandoned by her fiance, her future uncertain. Her sister Grace will soon be departing for the New World to marry; Honor decides, somewhat impetuously, to accompany her and find a different life. She can always come back home, right? But the sea voyage – heralded as the shortest and easiest passage possible – nearly kills her, she is so seasick. When she finally sets foot in America, she knows that, no, she can never go home.
On the overland trip to Ohio (by coach – their plan to take riverboats being prevented by Honor’s seasickness), where Grace’s fiance awaits, Grace falls sick and dies. Honor will arrive alone, and ahead of the letter announcing her coming, so that the fiance, Adam, expects one sister but finds another. His brother has likewise died, leaving him now with a widowed sister-in-law as well as this almost-sister-in-law. Honor’s place is decidedly uncertain, and uncomfortable. The new Ohio Quaker community of Faithwell does not look approvingly upon Adam’s strange household. The pressure is on, therefore, for Honor to find herself a husband; but she is without even a friend in her new hometown.
She does have a friend a day trip away, however, in Wellington: Belle Mills, of Mills Millinery, who nursed Honor through an illness and sheltered her, and gave her work. Honor is a gifted seamstress and quilter, and her skills were appreciated in Belle’s shop. Quakers can’t wear colorful or decorative hats, but Honor enjoyed making them for others; and Honor got along with Belle, although the non-Quaker’s coarse speech and whiskey drinking were new to Honor. (Honor’s sewing and quilting are a strong framing element throughout the story: quilts in the English and the new American styles are described, and provide examples of Honor’s homesickness, and her new community’s intolerance of her English traditions. I thought of my mother, the quilter, who I think would appreciate these details.) Also simultaneously fascinating and disturbing is Belle’s brother, Donovan, a slave-hunter; and this is where the conflict of the novel begins.
As a Quaker and as a moral being, Honor is naturally repelled by slavery; but it is easier to abhor the peculiar institution from England, where it is distant and (forgive the phrase) black-and-white. In Ohio, Honor sees black people for almost the first time, and encounters runaway slaves who she is naturally inclined to help; she also sees Donovan working to re-enslave them. When she does marry local dairy farmer Jack Haymaker, Honor finds not a soulmate or even companion; but she does find a nasty mother-in-law and sister-in-law. When they discover that Honor has been offering minor assistance to runaways – food, water, directions to the next stop on the Underground Railroad, in Oberlin – they forbid her to help further.
The issue, then, is between obedience to her new (if unlikeable) family, versus her feelings about slavery. Honor will grow as she has to form new relationships, and not always easy ones: alliances with a black woman in Oberlin named Mrs. Reed, and with the colorful Belle Mills; and she has to find a way to relate to her new husband and in-laws that will work for each of them.
I noticed I was approaching the end of this audiobook and things felt so up in the air I couldn’t believe they’d be wrapped up in time. And indeed, the reader would appreciate a sequel to find out what finally becomes of Honor’s new family; but they are sent on their way in good time, with no loose ends, at least. Honor’s character sees a satisfactory arc: she grows, expands, speaks up for herself, considers different positions and stakes her own. And her new life is indeed established in the end.
I thought the Underground Railroad was ably portrayed, if only simplistically; the runaway slaves have some personality, and Belle Mills is a great hit. The quilting element, as I said, was an added appeal as well. But it’s Honor herself who stars, rightfully. I think Tracy Chevalier still has it here, and would recommend this novel. It’s somewhat lightweight in the issues it addresses, perhaps, but it makes its points, and is more accessible than novels on this subject sometimes are, so it will appeal to the popular reader.
The audio performance by Kate Reading (great name, that!) is fine as well. I liked the different accents she used; they provided real color and personality. I would happily recommend this format.