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Book review: <i>The Last Runaway</i> by Tracy Chevalier

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the cover of the book

Striking out to a new world is never easy, but Honor Bright certainly didn't anticipate making the move to America would be so difficult. When she is introduced to the reality of slavery and the mark it has made on her new country, she realises her personal struggle is far outweighed by this awful blight that is quietly tearing at her community. In order to do what's right, she has to go against the people who care about her. But how can she, one woman, make her mark?

The story

Honor Bright spent the formative years of her life knowing her place in the world. Growing up in a close-knit Quaker community in England that had existed for hundreds of years, Honor led a quiet life of quilting and attending meetings. She became betrothed to an appropriate companion, and Honor was satisfied. But then, heartache. Honor was left with all her dreams shattered when her engagement was suddenly terminated. For the first time in her life, Honor doesn' t know what her next step will be.

Honor's sister, Grace, was always the restless one in the family. Grace becomes engaged by letters to a taciturn English Quaker who had recently immigrated to Ohio. Grace will do anything to get out of Bridgport, including marrying a much steadier, older man on another continent. Honor, left adrift for the first time in her life, decides to accompany her sister.

America is young and cruel and strange; utterly foreign to Honor and completely different to Bridgport. When tragedy strikes and Honor is left to fend for herself, the kindness of strangers becomes her only hope. Luckily she meets some kindly folk along the way, and manages to forge a life for herself in Ohio.

But not everybody is so lucky. While Honor has settled in the north, where slavery has been abolished, there are many slaves passing through her town trying to get to Canada and freedom. Honor thought that the Quaker community were in complete agreement about the horror of slavery, but she discovered that while many Quakers paid lip service, they were less than willing to actively help the poor souls passing through. Honor cannot idly sit by and do nothing, but will doing what she think is right cause a friction amongst her people that can't be resolved?

The style

I read The Girl With The Pearl Earring on the two day slow boat up the Meekong River earlier this year. Sure, this is little bragging segue about my recent holiday, but also meant that when I found out there was another Tracy Chevalier book about to hit the stands I got enthused. I didn't review Pearl Earring; I was distracted by cheap Laotian whiskey and a lack of pens. But I recall enjoying it.

Fast forward to The Last Runaway. Obviously, completely different subject matter. “Quakers.” I thought. “How interesting can they be?” It's not that their ideology doesn't appeal to me, it's just, where's the conflict? Clearly, I needed to read on.

A couple of chapters in, I remembered two incredibly important things. Firstly, Tracy Chevalier is a beautiful writer. Her style is vividly evocative without being overly wordy, and the reader is thrown right into a newly settling America. It's sort of like watching Deadwood, but less grimy. Because, you know, Quakers would be less grimy than a couple of bars and brothels. The second important thing is that if you can write like Tracy Chevalier, it doesn't matter if your subject matter is grass growing. You can still make it interesting. And of course, The Last Runaway deals with some pretty interesting and action-packed subject matter, moral quagmires, and self discovery. So Quakers? Interesting. Actually interesting.

One of the things that really stood out for me in The Last Runaway was the rich depth of characterisation. Honor Bright is fantastic, and it's a privilege to watch the story unfold through her eyes. She deals with every event with a resoluteness of spirit and a humanity which is simple, but very three dimensional at the same time. All the peripheral characters are just as interesting, and behave in ways that are sometimes surprising, sometimes expected, and always human.

Now, I'm a massive sucker for a good setting. It's one of the reasons I have such a soft spot for a great Australian author, Tim Winton or Joan London or Joan Lindsay for example, because they evoke the Australian landscape in such a beautiful way. And I've never seen it done about the USA the way Tracy Chevalier does it. I could feel the woods, the settlements, the mud on the roads. The way she described the light gave me that Australiana feeling about the light here, in the bush. I found it to be remarkable because I've never considered the way the landscape of American settlement felt before, even though I've read a plethora of books about it. So kudos, Tracy Chevalier.

Who is this book for?

I'd recommend buying it for your mum or your sister for Christmas, but it isn't coming out till January 8th. You could totally pre-order it though, and get a copy for yourself while you're at it. It's easy to read, take it on holiday or escape with it on your lunch break.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Tracy Chevalier has seven previous books, including the now-a-major-motion-picture The Girl With The Pearl Earring. Which I've read, and it's good. So I'd give those a go. Also, there are other writers who go in for this kind of historical fiction, but I do not recommend Jodi Picoult. She wrote a very average story about the Amish, but if you're looking for something like Chevalier, Picoult will just disappoint you.

In short

Title: The Last Runaway
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-525-95299-2
Year published: 2013
Pages: 301
Genre(s): Literary fiction, Historical fiction
Review Type: