The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The Last Runaway is Chevalier’s 7th novel. She’s had considerable success in different fields of novel writing, with the best known of her books so far being The Girl with a Pearl Earring. Many of the reviews say that The Last Runaway is her best since that block-buster. Certainly the cover of The Girl with a Pearl Earring is memorable, borrowing as it does, from Vermeer’s painting. The cover of The Last Runaway is not nearly so memorable, and I presume the publisher will have another stab at it for subsequent reprints.

The title of the book can be taken in several different ways. The Last Runaway not only refers to the American slaves whom the heroine helps to escape to the north; it also refers to her own habit of running away from a situation rather than facing up to it.

This is a Rite of Passage story, covering the emigration of a young English Quaker girl to the partially tamed new land of Ohio in North America in the 1850s. We follow her life’s choices: her departure from home, her marriage and integration into her new family, the acquisition of the skills she needs to survive as a dairy farmer’s wife, the bearing of her first child, and her new family’s decision to move further west and start again.

Honor Bright is no wide-eyed romantic. Her opinions are already formed by the time the book opens. By the time the book opens she has been jilted, and in a way one can see why because she is a strongly opinionated little thing. So, when her elder sister decides to marry a Quaker from a neighbouring family who has already emigrated and made a home for himself in America, Honor decides to go with her. The sister dies before they can reach their destination but Honor carries on to meet her sister’s intended, rather than attempt another sea voyage and return to her family.

What Honor finds in America is not much to her liking. Everything she sees, she compares to ‘back home’.

There have been many stories, films and musicals about the Making of the West, and most of these cover the impact of the making of a new country on a hero or heroine. I have always been particularly fond of Owen Wister’s book The Virginian, which follows the upright figure of another émigré, Molly Stark Wood from ‘civilised’ Vermont to the then wild west. It dates from a slightly later period, 1875, and deals with Wyoming, not Ohio, but the theme of the book is the same – a clash of cultures.

In The Virginian, Molly is a sparky young thing, from a protected and moneyed background, who finds herself having to earn a living when her father dies suddenly. Inspired by a pioneer ancestress, she reaches out for an adventure. She is not particularly judgmental, but she does discover that many of the social attitudes which she has been brought up with, must change to encompass the realities of living in a new world. And she does open her mind to change – which is, I fear, more than Honor Bright does.

The Quakers and Slavery. It depended where you lived in America as to how you viewed slavery. The North – which didn’t need slave labour – regarded it one way. The South – which depended on slave labour – looked at it in another. If you were brought up to believe A, then you thought everybody else was Wrong! Likewise if you were brought up to believe B.

The Quakers were against slavery and worked for its abolition and Honor took their opinions with her when she emigrated. Quaker thinking influences every decision she makes.

In a way, there is a second Underground Railway in operation in this book, and that is the Quaker households which offer refuge and help to their own kind as they travel across America. Even Honor is surprised how generous her hosts are at each of the houses where she stops – and as the book ends, she is travelling even further on to yet another township founded by Quakers.

The laws about prosecuting those who helped slaves to run away varied from State to State. Those in Ohio at the time in which this book is set, meant that any who aided a slave was automatically breaking the law and dire punishment would follow. I am not sure that I entirely went along with the popping up and down the line which is supposed to be happening on Honor’s watch, but a lot of the information given about hiding the slaves is fascinating.

The Underground Railway. I have come across this before in one of Gene Stratton Porter’s novels, called ‘Laddie’. She is another storyteller who uses flawed characters and big themes. This particular tale of hers is set at a time when the land was settled and being farmed. Her premise was that the farmers formed a secret committee to donate money and maintain hiding places for runaway slaves to rest in along the route.

The choice of character shapes the storyline. Chevalier chose to depict Honor as a strong woman, who thinks for herself. If you put a strong woman into a certain situation – such as living near the Underground Railway for runaway slaves – then she will react in such and such a way. She will interfere. She will do what she thinks is right even to ignoring her husband’s wishes.

If Chevalier had chosen to portray Honor as a romantic, impressionable soul in the same situation, she might weep about it, but she probably wouldn’t go against her husband’s wishes and take action.

In this book the main character has to make lifestyle choices. An unmarried girl, Honor is faced with the difficulty of remaining unwed in a farming community which is only just about surviving. If she had been a romantic, Honor might well have glamourized her husband to be, and thought it her duty to blend into her husband’s family.
In the case of Molly Wood in The Virginian, the situation did not arise because she – the new schoolteacher – was taken into the household of the local landowner and his wife. This, I believe, was the norm at the time; you also see it in Gene Stratton Porter’s novels – the schoolteacher lodges with the most appropriate of the local married farmers. It’s a practical way of dealing with the situation.

Honor doesn’t get that protection and she is definitely not a romantic. Faced with this particular problem, she barters her virginity in exchange for a husband and a home. But, she is hardly a dutiful daughter-in-law. She does learn the business of being a dairy famer’s wife, but not in a spirit of willingness. You can’t blame Honor’s mother-in-law from being less than enamoured of her son’s new wife.

Chevalier, you may say, doesn’t ‘do’ romantic heroines. Which is true. She gives us interesting characters; real people, flaws and all. In this case she has opted for a self-righteous, critical girl who is admirable in some ways but no malleable young thing. Honor is a skilled needlewoman: she is courageous, and tough. She is also a fish out of water who refuses to adapt. And humourless.

I’m not going to talk about the ups and downs of the plot except to say how interesting I found the character of Belle, the milliner and sister of the sinister slave-catcher Donovan. I did wonder whether or not Honor might have chosen to stay with Belle and work in her shop – perhaps even taking it over eventually? Instead, she chose to marry the Haymaker boy, who seemed good husband material. Donovan, however, is well enough drawn to make a striking contrast with Jack Haymaker and to make us understand Honour’s attraction to him.

So what of Belle’s action in killing her brother to let the ex-slave he’s caught go free? Do I believe Belle would do it? I’m really not sure. It is possible. The writer has given Belle a fatal cancer or maybe tuberculosis which softens the fact for the reader that she is responsible for killing Donovan, because she is going to die anyway. But, Belle’s subsequent trial and punishment has been neatly ignored by the writer. Does she get let off because she is ill? Does she suffer the ultimate penalty? I found this omission slightly annoying.

Let’s talk about quilts. The term itself may need explanation. A quilted fabric is one where several layers are stitched together from top to bottom, sometimes in complicated patterns. Some of the earliest that I’ve seen were done in Tudor times, making patterns with white thread on a white ground. Beautiful work. Later on the quilt makers diversified into piecing different fabrics together to make a repeating pattern, and, in another method, by inserting a medallion which has been heavily embroidered, into the centre of an otherwise plain quilt. Some had elaborate edging. All of these early quilts would have had the different layers overstitched together, sometimes with a conflicting pattern and sometimes along the lines of the original design.

But a quilt is a generic term for what is now called a duvet, where a bag of some filling is inserted into another bag made of plain or patterned material.

In Honor’s time, the number of quilts you brought to the marriage bed was the equivalent of a dowry. Neighbours would meet and work on a quilt together; sometimes on a frame where you would sew pre-prepared shapes onto a base. At other times, individual shapes would be worked separately and later added to, or joined onto other shapes. The quilts which Honor was used to make here in England were much more complicated than those she found were being made in Ohio, for reasons of time and availability of fabrics. In fact, she was quite ashamed of how quickly and rough and ready the American quilts seemed to her to be – and no doubt showed it! She must have come across as a hoity-toity madam to her new neighbours. Her needlework was far more advanced than theirs – she says – because she could work with one hand under the cotton and the other on top, which apparently they couldn’t do.

Almost the only possession she had left from her old English life was a signature quilt – which was pieced together from squares, each one of which had been worked by her old family and friends – and she has the nerve to denigrate their workmanship, too!

Sometimes the individual pieces were tacked together roughly over a piece of stiff paper. After they had been sewn together, the tacking would be picked off and the pieces of paper removed. I seem to remember a book about someone taking the forgotten pieces of paper out of an old quilt and discovering that the sewer had stitched love letters from a man inside.

I myself have made a quilt, choosing a repeating pattern of flower shapes which I would work on separately and only stitched into a base colour when I had enough. I used pieces of fabric from dresses I’d made, and also from remnants given me by friends – unfortunately some of these frayed over a period of time. I started to replace them, and gave up. I ought to have used new fabric in the first place. In Honor Bright’s day, the quilts were often made from pieces of left-over home-made garments and sometimes even from parts of a garment which had been so worn it was no longer useful. Nowadays there are websites and craft shops which sell everything you need to make a quilt of your own. There are also societies you can join and most museums have some quilts on show.

The designs have changed over the years, as was to be expected. At one time there was a myth that the clues to the stops on the Underground Railway for runaways were sewn into the quilts. This is nothing but a myth. It is not true. But some people believe it still.

(Comment from me: a quilt was a valuable piece of domestic usage. They were not handed out to all and sundry. Slaves were given blankets and that was that.)

One of the reasons that I chose this book is because it illustrates a common pitfall for writers, and that is that the reader becomes so identified with the character that they believe that whatever the character says is the true opinion of the writer.

We ought to have a banner headline:
THE WRITER TAKES NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE OPINIONS HELD BY
THE CHARACTERS IN THIS BOOK.
Except of course that we are.

The better the writer, the more able they are to make the reader identify with the heroine. This can be done in several ways, and Chevalier knows them all.

One of the ways is to write in the present tense. This is an option taken by many new writers, as they think it gives immediacy and drags the reader into the story quickly. However, there are problems writing in this format, mostly because it means you can only present the heroine’s point of view, and can only describe what she sees and does. It can get you into technical difficulties when you have to include descriptions or reports of what someone else has said or done. There are ways around this, but on the whole the experienced writer will choose to write in the third person and in the past tense . . . This is the most flexible format and the easiest for the reader to follow in.

A notable exception to this is Hilary Mantel in ‘Bring up the Bodies’. Her hero is Thomas Cromwell, and every now and then she lets us see his thinking . . . in the present tense! There is no warning. You suddenly drop from third into first. And it is disorientating. Once I’d worked out what she was doing, I understood why she was doing it, but I was never totally reconciled to it, because of the aforesaid moments of disorientation which break the reader/story bond.

Nowadays writers mostly use what is called ‘third person close’. This means we show what is going on in the character’s head, while maintaining the flexibility of the third person. Chevalier uses this third person close but throws in the first person present by telling parts of the story in letter format. It’s a clever way of tackling the problem, and the moments of disorientation are acceptable.

But, getting your reader to identify with the heroine may bring its own problems.

Chevalier is American in origin, but has lived in Britain for many years. She is a highly successful author, and this book has also been chosen as a Richard & Judy pick, which ensures it a certain readership, no matter what the critics might say about it.

The critics have, in fact, been divided. Apparently some have taken umbrage in large quantities because they have assumed that the views expressed by the disillusioned Honor Bright on her arrival in the semi-civilised West of America in the 1850s, reflect the views of the author.

This is not fair, but unfortunately the more believable the character created by the writer, the more likely it is that he or she will become identified with whatever is said or done by that character. The character may be shown to be a liar. They may be despicable, hold racist views or an addict. But if the writer has drawn them with a sympathetic eye, whatever they say, however false or crude or plain nasty, may be interpreted by the reader as being the opinions held by the writer.

I myself have had the biased views of a minor character in a book, attributed to me, and been castigated for it. I suppose I should be flattered that I had created a believable character.
On the internet, readers have mostly given the book three and a half stars, though some have given it four out of five. I think four out of five is about right. It’s a worthwhile book and gives an insight into American history.

Purchase

Amazon UK:

Price: £6.91
Was: £8.99

Amazon USA: