The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier: Quaker Living, Quilts and Intertextuality

A group of escaped slaves, 1862-1865, South Carolina, 
US. The main character in The Last Runaway helps escaped
 slaves  and struggles with contemporary racism. Photograph: 
Corbis  (as featured on The Guardian)

I’m so glad that I was given a proof copy of The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier to review. I have previously read and greatly enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring, and I found this novel equally enjoyable.

Both books contain good-willed females living simple lives, and each protagonist faces a similar corruption of innocence. In each book, Chevalier demonstrates her talent at depicting relationships whilst retaining the strong identity of the individual. However, the settings of the novels are vastly different, and it wouldn’t be right to base the novel’s success on its similarities to Chevalier’s other texts.

The Last Runaway is a fascinating book, and a novel that coincidentally matches so many elements of my own experience and history. For instance, the novel’s protagonist, Honor, and the characters close to her, are predominantly Quaker, as many of my mother’s ancestors were. Also, whilst the novel is set largely in Ohio, we are privy to Honor’s reflections of her life in Bristol and the surrounding South West of England. I began reading the novel whilst on my train home for the weekend, and Exeter was mentioned just as I was leaving it. Such mentions made my reading of the novel so much more personal, and indeed exciting.

Here’s a description of the novel:

When modest Quaker Honor Bright sails from Bristol, she is fleeing heartache for a new life in America. But tragedy leaves her alone and vulnerable, torn between two worlds and dependent on the kindness of strangers. Life in 1850s Ohio is precarious and unsentimental. The sun is too hot, the thunderstorms too violent, the snow too deep. The roads are spattered with mud and spit. The woods are home to skunks and porcupines and raccoons. They also shelter slaves escaping north to freedom. Should Honor hide runaways from the ruthless men who hunt them down? The Quaker community she has joined may oppose slavery in principle, but does it have the courage to help her defy the law? As she struggles to find her place and her voice, Honor must decide what she is willing to risk for her beliefs. Set in the tangled forests and sunlit cornfields of Ohio, Tracy Chevalier’s vivid novel is the story of bad men and spirited women, surprising marriages and unlikely friendships, and the remarkable power of defiance.

A quilt like those described in The Last Runaway
I loved the colours and patterns of the quilts described
in the novel

There is a fantastic visual layering throughout the book, largely created through the theme of quilting. Honor is, well, extremely talented with a needle and thread, often to the envy of her in-laws and neighbours. Although the novel has a third-person omniscient narrative with the occasional letter embedded, the narrator allows us extensive descriptions of the quilts Honor has made, is making, and wants to make. As a result, the narrative gains descriptions of colour, texture and embellishment that it wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m sure that many people will be visiting fabric suppliers after reading this novel!

I’m studying a transatlantic literature module at the moment for university, so this text came at a great time. The exchange of American and English culture, and the English outsider familiarising herself with America, was very interesting to me. Something particularly striking was the protagonist’s name itself, Honor. I’m not sure if the name is ever used with the English spelling ‘Honour’, but the American usage here seems to imply a form of transatlantic exchange, or alternatively that Honor has inherently American characteristics. It must be noted that the last section of the Declaration of Independence, ratified in 1776, contains the following lines:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Yes, the last word of the Declaration is ‘Honor’, capitalised to match the protagonist’s name exactly. Very clever, Chevalier.

An honest, cutting portrayal of slavery is at the centre of the narrative. Perhaps this is inevitable, considering the setting of the novel in the 1850s and Honor’s perspective as an Englishwoman (slavery was abolished in England in 1833). The travelling of the protagonist from England to America very much reminded me of Charles Dickens’ American Notes (see my post here), in which the author is similarly appalled by the continuation of slavery in some southern states. Dickens travelled to America in 1842, and so the time scales of his account and Chevalier’s story aren’t so dissimilar. Another reason why I found Chevalier’s novel to be loosely inspired by American Notes was the mention of spitting tobacco. Dickens and Honor respond similarly with shock, both towards the disgusting nature of the act, and the nonchalance of the person committing it. Surely, I thought, Chevalier has read Dickens’ text. Upon flicking towards Chevalier’s acknowledgements, I came across the following mention:

For nineteenth-century English views on Americans, you can’t do better than Domestic Manners of the Americans by Francis Trollope (1832) and American Notes by Charles Dickens (1842); although they are both highly critical of the United States, many of their observations still hold true today.

This parallel gives so much depth to the novel, I believe. In a perhaps mandatory way, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) is also mentioned as a relevant text from the period.Within the text, literary readers will be pleased to see that Honor and her Sister bring, alongside the Bible, Mansfied Park, The Old Curiosity Shop and Martin Chuzzlewit for their journey by sea. I could ramble about the symbolism of British books being taken across the Atlantic, but I simply like great books being mentioned in novels!

Sometimes I found the build-up to major plot events a little sudden and incoherent, but as my copy is a proof copy, I cannot be sure that this will not change. All in all, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I expected. I didn’t realise that it would have so many layers of meaning, such well-researched themes, and such interesting characters. The novel provides a rest from my reading of dense classics, but The Last Runaway is by all means an intelligent, provoking read.

The novel will be released here in the UK on March 14 2013, and you can pre-order the book from The Book Depository – let me know if you read and enjoy it!


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