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Book Review: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

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Honor Bright leaves her English family to accompany her sister to America, thinking she can always return to England, but realizing that her life may take drastic turns. The Last Runaway thus opens with its underlying premise that our choices require actions which may come at personal cost. After a month-long voyage filled with nausea, Honor steps on American soil and travels by stagecoach to Ohio, only to see her sister die of yellow fever. Alone in the backwoods of Ohio and living among strangers, she must find her place in a land completely unlike the home she pines for.

Honor is flustered by her new environment—differing landscapes, flowers, food and birds. “Even a tree as solid and steady as an oak was transformed in America into something alien.” Jarring to her are the independent, enterprising Americans who are unafraid to speak their minds. The “rickety” houses made of wood and muddy streets may be a metaphor for her difficulty in finding stability. She marries Jack Haymaker, a dairy farmer, hoping for security. Soon she learns that 1850s Ohio is the most active state in the Underground Railroad.

Do Quakers sworn to honesty tell white lies to save slaves? Should the Haymaker family help runaways when the Fugitive Slave Act not only forbids it, but also might take away their farm as a penalty? Will Honor continue her Underground activities when repudiated by her husband’s family?

The Last Runaway is honest. Contrasts between slavery versus freedom and right versus wrong are not always clear. Characters face moral contradictions and this is a grand subtlety of the book. Villainous slave hunter Donovan manages to draw sympathy from the reader. Shrewd and earthy Belle, who wears a plain hat in her store so as not to compete with her customer–but dons her fanciest hat outside for advertising–is a complex, compelling character.

Well-known for her best selling The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier shines at finding a slice of history and humanizing it. The Last Runaway is her first foray into America’s history and the all-important involvement of Quakers in the Underground Railroad. To immerse herself in the nineteenth century and better understand Honor, Ms. Chevalier studied quilting, attended Quaker meetings, and visited an Amish farm. The book’s Acknowledgements reveal numerous historical sources consulted and credit author Toni Morrison for inspiring The Last Runaway.

The book takes awhile to ramp up. Reviewers complain that quilting dominates. Yes it does, but Ms. Chevalier shows us the importance of quilting in early American social and economic life. Honor’s character, although true to Quaker tradition, would have benefitted from some additional spice and depth.

Brimming with the significant role Quakers played in moving slaves to the north and freedom, the book highlights difficult choices faced by those opposed to slavery. Living a principled life in the midst of practical realities is like walking a tightrope. Right versus wrong is depicted here as a gray area. Quakers, largely responsible for the abolitionist movement, held slaves themselves and separated black Quakers on a “Negro pew” during meetings. Honor finally realizes she is but one small link in a large chain. Will her actions break the chain? The Last Runaway leaves the reader with much food for thought.

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