Tracy Chevalier’s latest book, The Last Runaway, is a bit of a departure from her other work. I have read several of Chevalier’s books, and I can’t think of one that isn’t set in Europe. The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman who decides to accompany her sister Grace across the Atlantic to America. Grace plans to marry a man who emigrated to Ohio and used to be a member of the Bridport Friends’ Meeting where the Brights worship. Honor has been jilted by her fiancé, Samuel, who throws her over and leaves the Society of Friends in order to marry outside the religious order. The voyage is terrible for Honor, who suffers from the worst bout of seasickness you’ve ever seen this side of Outlander‘s Jamie Fraser. Honor realizes that she is stuck in America because she can’t imagine being able to endure a crossing back to England. After disembarking, Honor and Grace travel to Ohio by stagecoach, but Grace contracts yellow fever and dies on the voyage. Now all alone in America, Honor must find her own way. Her sister’s fiancé, Adam Cox, takes her in for a time, but his brother has recently died, and he is living with his brother’s widow, Abigail. Before long, the Quakers frown at their unorthodox living arrangement. Adam marries Abigail, and Honor rushes into a marriage with Jack Haymaker, whose stern mother Judith is a Quaker elder who does not approve of Honor.
One of the most interesting threads in the book dealt with quilting. Honor is a quilter. Her adjustment to America is hard, and she especially does not like Americans’ ways of quilting. Her skill with a needle earns her the friendship and hospitality of Belle Mills, a milliner in Wellington. However, it also draws the unwelcome attention of Donovan, Belle’s brother and the local slave catcher. Honor quickly finds herself caught up in the American debate over slavery. Just as the Fugitive Slave Act is passed, Honor finds herself helping slaves cross to Canada as a part of the Underground Railroad. While her in-laws disapprove of slavery, they are also unwilling to allow lawbreaking in their family, and Honor has some difficult decisions to make.
I am a fan of Tracy Chevalier’s books. I especially liked Remarkable Creatures and The Virgin Blue, which was one of the first books I reviewed for this blog. I was interested in reading this book because some of my own immigrant ancestors were Quakers. I imagine they came to America to worship more freely, but they were quite different from the Quakers of Ohio. Within several generations, at least in my own line of the family, they had abandoned their faith for various other Protestant denominations, but my 7th great-grandmother Elizabeth Clark Anthony was the mother of fifteen children and after her husband’s death, she became a Quaker missionary who made four trips between Virginia and Georgia on horseback and lived to be 103 years old.
Perhaps because I was hoping to see a glimpse of what my own ancestors’ lives were like, I really wanted to like this book. I was underwhelmed, however. I found Honor hard to like. She seemed to feel quite sorry for herself a lot of the time, and while it’s true that she was living in difficult circumstances, she created a lot of them. Her attraction to Donovan was inexplicable. I thought Chevalier did everything she could to make him odious, and it was impossible for this reader to understand Honor’s feelings for him. Honor’s disdain for the American way of doing just about everything was trying as well. I understand she was a fish out of water, but for a Quaker, she was terribly judgmental. Almost every chapter closed with a letter from Honor to her family or friends. I found the transition from third person to first jarring in some cases, though I wished more of the story had been told in first person. Though I didn’t like Honor much, I found her voice in the letters to ring true.
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.