By Tracy Chevalier.
The Last Runaway is the seventh novel by Tracy Chevalier and it is the first and only book of hers I have read to date. Probably the best known of her other titles is Girl With A Pearl Earring, which was also made into a film. Tracy is of American descent, although she has lived in England since 1984.
In 1850, two young girls, Quaker sisters Honour and Grace Bright, set out for America leaving behind their relatively sheltered upbringing in Dorset, England. Although they travel together, their reasons for going to America are, perhaps, as opposite as can be. One is running to something in America and the other, running from something in England.
Needless to say, their plans do not work out as intended. On their way to Ohio, after landing in America at the end of a rough sea crossing, the book follows the travails of Grace Bright’s younger sister, Honour. Even her journey, with the help of strangers, to join the Quaker community in the small town of Faithwell was not without its anxious moments. Honour eventually reaches Faithwell with the help of Belle Mills, a milliner in the nearby town of Wellington, who makes the kind of hats no Quaker would ever wear.
Belle, surprisingly, becomes Honour’s best, and at times seemingly only, friend, although she is not a Quaker nor even a church-goer herself. And yet in Belle we sometimes seem to find a greater Christian spirit than is apparent in many of the Quakers we meet in Tracy’s novel. As the story continues, we find out more of how this comes about, at least in the Haymaker family into which Honour marries.
The family of Haymakers, at some time in their past before Honour becomes a part of them, appear to have had a hard time balancing aspects of their lives between the law, their faith, their principals and the practicalities of living in a young country. Whilst Honour finds she cannot agree with their views in these matters, especially of Judith Haymaker the mother of the family. In time and with the unlikely, tentative support of the Haymaker’s youngest daughter, Dorcas, she does perhaps come to understand them a little better, though Judith never does come to understand, or even respect the views of Honour.
My review has concentrated on the story of Honour Bright, nee Haymaker, however an important part of her story was her involvement with the euphemistically named ‘Underground Railway’ in 1850s America. Suffice it to say, without going into detail on this aspect and potentially spoil your read, she became involved with helping escaping slaves from the southern states.
Interspersed throughout the story are Honour’s letters back to her family in England and also to the best friend she left behind in Dorset, Biddy. The letters add a seemingly more personal touch, to what is already a well told story, giving additional insights into Honour’s character.
Tracy’s depiction of Quaker ways seems to show an eye for detail that help bring the story to life and though I can not comment on their accuracy I have no reason to think otherwise. In particular, she describes what might almost seem to be a quaker obsession with quilt making, and the expectation of American quakers that a girl would bring a significant number of quilts to their marriage. In this at least Honour did earn respect for he ability as a quilt maker, probably the best in Faithwell.
I found The Last Runaway to be an enjoyable, easy read and whilst I may well in the future pick up another of Tracy Chevalier’s books to delve into, I cannot say she is an author for whom I would be likely to hunt down her books one after another and eagerly await her next publication.
Eagle eyed readers have probably noticed that I did not spell Honour’s name as Tracy did, “Honor” without the ‘u’. This was nneither accidental nor a mistake on my part. Tracy used the American spelling of the name in her book but Honour Bright (nee Haymaker) was an Engilsh girl, so it is more than likely her name would be spelled with the ‘u’, Honour.
I think that in this review, I shall leave the final words to Honour herself:
“I am learning the difference between running from and running towards.
Always with thee in spirit,
Thy faithful friend,