Tuesday, 3 December 2019

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, who in 1850 emigrates from Bridport in Dorset to a small Quaker community in Ohio, only to find herself caught between the Underground Railroad of slaves escaping slavery in the southern states, and the harsh exigencies of the new Fugitive Slave law.

Chevalier manages to avoid too much White Saviourism, or self congratulation on the Quaker role in the anti-slavery movement. Hope has been brought up to believe slavery is wrong. Yet Chavalier does not shy away showing how the famous Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia kept a “negroes’ bench” at the back of the room. Nor that many Quakers supported the dubious concept of ‘colonisation’, whereby ex-slaves would be shipped back to Africa, regardless of the fact that many of them had been in America for generations.

Nor does Chevalier over-inflate the Quaker role in the Underground Railroad. Much more important is the role of free Black men and women, like Mrs Reed in the nearby town of Oberlin, who were there long before Honor arrived in Ohio and will be there long after she has moved on. Honor’s naive good intentions are at times as likely to imperil the runaways and their supporters as to help them.

Chevalier paints a vivid picture of life on the frontier – the harsh extremes of the weather, the unfamiliar flora and fauna, the utter necessity to be self-reliant when shops are few and far between and at times beyond reach.

Woven through the book is also the story of quilting – the often over-looked ‘women’s work’ that brought women together and created social bonds as well as something both practical and beautiful. Honor is a master of the largely British tradition of patchwork quilting. As she learns, when the women of Ohio come together in ‘frolics’ to make quilts, they favour appliqué. While Mrs Reed uses yet another style. Chevalier learnt to quilt as part of her preparation for writing this book and her detailed descriptions of quilt and quilting techniques are fascinating.

Absent from this picture of frontier life, however, is any glimpse of what has happened to the indigenous people of this newly colonised land. They are simply gone, both from the land and from the consciousness of the people now occupying it.

None the less this is an absorbing retelling of a broadly familiar story, with all of Chavalier’s trademark attention to the details of women’s day to day lives. And incidentally, for me, it was a joy to read descriptions of Meetings for Worship from a fellow Quaker who actually gets it! Patrick Gage is one of the few others I have read who can really capture what it feels like to sit in that ‘gathered silence’.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of frontier life in America that ignore the impact on the indigenous groups

Perfect Accompaniment: Fresh corn on the cob

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

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