Summer School Book Two: The Last Runaway ~ Tracy Chevalier

imagesIf I’m honest, I have to say that this was the book that I was least looking forward to reading.  I have had a very mixed history with Tracy Chevalier’s work: some I have loved and others I have been really disappointed by.  However, I had had a specific request to include this in the initial list of fifteen and when it turned up in the final three I had to sit back and go along with the majority vote.  Reading The Last Runaway reminded me of one of the things that I find difficult about this author’s work: she is very direct in her message and that lack of subtlety can often lead to her over simplifying the issues that she is addressing.  I thought that was particularly the case in the way she dealt with the suffragette movement in Falling Angels.  Here, however, perhaps because the topics she was covering were less immediately relevant to me, I was aware of this trait without being particularly annoyed by it and consequently ended up enjoying the book much more than I had expected.

The main thrust of the story, which is set in 1850, is to do with a Quaker woman, Honor Bright, who has left England with her sister Grace to live in a small Quaker community in Ohio.  Here Grace is to be married to Adam Cox, an acquaintance who has made the move earlier to be with his brother, already established in the township. However, Grace dies before reaching their destination and Honor is left alone in a country she doesn’t know, with people who are not particularly pleased to see her.

Once there it is difficult for Honor to avoid knowledge of the activities of the Underground Railway, the system set up to help those slaves escaping from the southern plantations to reach safety by crossing the border with Canada. Received wisdom tells us that in many instances it was the Quakers who were instrumental in setting up and maintaining the lines of communication that allowed these people passage through a state which, despite being officially free, was still bound by the federal law forbidding individuals from helping runaways.  What Chevalier does, however, is question whether that was always the case and what happens when abstract religious principles, which dictate a specific course of action, run up against the reality of every day living.  As Honor muses,

[p]erhaps principles were not as strong a motivation as the reality of losing money and land.

Honor, having married into a local farming family, finds herself in conflict with their policy of non-involvement.  Already dismayed by the separate benches for black members in Quaker Meeting Houses, when she discovers runaways hiding in close proximity to the farm she does what she can to help them despite strict instructions to the contrary from her formidable mother-in-law.  Honor is horrified by the family’s refusal to help but, as we discover, the Haymaker family have previously paid a very heavy price for assisting runaways and their decisions are being made in a frame of reference that Honor cannot even begin to understand.

This led to an interesting discussion about how easy it is to advocate a set of rigid principles when you are unlikely to be called upon to enact them in your every day life.  Being a Quaker has posed no problems for Honor in her family home of Dorset because it has asked nothing substantial of her.  What she realises when she finds herself in a very different environment is that if

an abstract principle [becomes] entangled with daily life it [loses] its clarity and [becomes] compromised and weakened.

It would be very easy to condemn the Haymakers for their attitude towards the runaways and their refusal to live up to the religious principles they avow, but we have not lost a father and a home to the actions of evil-minded bigots.  None of us can know how we would act in a similar situation because we have never found ourselves walking in the Haymakers’ shoes.  Yes, we would all like to think that we would do as Honor does and continue to find ways of assisting those trying to make it to Lake Erie, but we cannot know if that is how we would behave until we have been tried.

The other aspect of the book that raised some discussion was the subject of colonisation.

‘Even in Oberlin [the negroes] are a separate community, and those who have run away are not entirely safe.  That is why we support colonisation.  It seems a better option.’

‘What is colonisation?’

‘Negroes come originally from Africa, and they would be happier living back there, in a new country of their own.’

For some of us this gave pause for thought because it is too close to opinions we hear expressed on the streets of our own cities today.  And Mrs Reed, a runaway who has settled in Oberlin, has the obvious answer,

‘Why would I want to go to Africa?  I was born in Virginia.  So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents.  I’m American.  I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen.  If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well I’m here.  This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

The Last Runaway proved to be a reminder to us all that there are rarely easy answers to issues where the people involved perceive their livelihood and welfare as being threatened and that when any one of us finds ourselves in such a position the principles we thought we so firmly held are likely to be tested.  It may be set in the Ohio of 1850, but the themes it deals with are very pertinent in Britain today.

24 thoughts on “Summer School Book Two: The Last Runaway ~ Tracy Chevalier

  1. Interesting to read your piece after reading Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, published in 1928, and finishing her other novella Passing yesterday – both look at what was called ‘the race question’ and make uncomfortable reading, particularly in view of events in Ferguson a few weeks ago. Your final sentence rings true both here and in America, sadly.

    1. Isn’t that what is often best about literature? That it leaves us with questions to ask about our own life, even if the answers to those questions are ones that we’d rather not acknowledge.

  2. This really sounds like a good and gripping book, and I’m reminded of a parallel, from my own point of view. I noticed that one of your commenters the other day said that all of Tracy Chevalier’s books were beginning to read alike, and I think that this one might possibly be an exception. I had a similar experience with Amy Tan’s work. I found her books good, but often repetitive until she was engaged with a political issue (the history of Burma, now Myanmar), and when she wrote that book (“Saving Fish From Drowning”), I found it much better and easier to maintain interest in.

    1. The problem of course is that once we have been put off an author’s work by a number of poorer examples we may then miss the gemstone in the pile of pebbles. I wouldn’t have read this if it hadn’t come up on the Summer School list.

  3. I was reluctant to borrow this book from the library shelves where I’d spotted it earlier, but I might give it a chance next time thanks to your review. I was pleasantly surprised by an audiobook version of Remarkable Creatures despite the lack of nuances in her characters (perhaps because I didn’t know anything about the topic), but I realize I tend to be quite forgiving with audiobooks.

    1. I think ‘Remarkable Creatures’ was the book that signalled a return to form on Chevalier’s part. I know a lot of people enjoyed it more than this one, so you may still need to approach this with caution.

  4. I belong to a reading group of Quakers, we were quite disappointed by this novel, not by the Quaker aspects but the finished work. The countryside descriptions came to life and the ‘wicked’ antihero gave us a frisson as he seemed to do to the author. I long for her to come up with something better – she works so hard, I admire that, her research is admirable but it tends to show. Her subjects are interesting and vital ones. Apologies if this reaction. seems hard. I’m looking forward to the day she wows me, it’ll happen I think.

    1. No apologies needed Carol. Your reaction is honest and expressed respectfully. I would hate it if everyone felt the same way about every book:-) In fact we have a friend who is a Quaker who had read the book and we were hoping that she would join us for the discussion, but because she couldn’t make it to all three sessions she felt it wouldn’t be right for her to come. It’s an interesting point about research showing. There have been a number of books over the past decade or so which I’ve felt really suffered by the writer’s insistence on getting every bit of research in regardless of its merit. The value of research is knowing what to leave out.

  5. Glad to know this worked out despite your reservations. I had avoided this book having similarly been disappointed by the last two I read by her. Falling Angels was the weakest of them – no subtlety in characters or the way she depicted the issues. It was a painting by numbers approach to the Suffragette cause unfortunately.

  6. Your article and the comments cover most of the reasons why I avoid historical fiction as a general rule in favor of biography and actual history (non-fiction). But I will say that I loved Girl with Pearl Earring. That is one of hers, right? I’m sorry to see everyone feels her work has declined since then.

    1. Yes, Girl with the Pearl Earring was her real big hitter and she’s been trying, more or less unsuccessfully, to match it ever since.

  7. I’m not really a big fan of Tracy Chevalier, though I have enjoyed a few of her books. This is one that I haven’t read as it doesn’t sound very appealing to me, but I’m glad you found it so much better than you’d expected. I do like historical novels that raise issues which are still relevant today.

  8. Falling Angels is the only Chevalier I’ve read. I completely missed out on Girl with The Pearl Earring, but I did read Falling Angels for a book club. I did enjoy it, but, like you, I wouldn’t have chosen one of her books for another boo discussion. It seemed to be a matter of: loved it! You know the kind of discussion, or maybe you don’t!
    The Last Runaway does sound interesting, perhaps because I’ve been to Oberlin, a beautiful college town, or perhaps I’ve read so many novels about this topic.
    Far, far better is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin!:)

    1. It’s interesting how some books lend themselves to discussion and others simply stall, isn’t it Kat? It’s become one of my criteria for selecting books for any sort of group now, that I must be able to feel that I can lead at least an hour’s discussion from it if nobody else seems to have anything to say.

  9. Oops! I mean “book,” not “boo,” and that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is PROBABLY better. (I haven’t read The Last Runaway.)

  10. I’m glad you enjoyed this after your mixed feelings. I thought Girl With a Pearl Earring was only okay, and so I haven’t been tempted to try something else. I read that one a while ago, so I can’t even remember why I responded that way. But she might be fun to listen to on audio, where I’m more likely to take risks and try books by authors I worry I might not like.

    1. I think this would work quite well as an audio version, Rebecca, depending of course on who was reading it. It has nice moments where you could stop without losing the momentum which is always important I think when listening to a book where it is more difficult to flick backwards and remind yourself of what has been happening.

  11. I too, have been to Oberlin–just this Sunday, as it’s where my youngest is going to college. They had some race issues the year before he went, spring of 2013, although they like to point out that they were the first private college in the country to admit people of color.
    Where I grew up, in the American south, we still didn’t have copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the public library, so I didn’t read it until I was an adult. I enjoyed its over-the-top rhetoric.

    1. I believe they were also the first college to admit women as well, Jeanne, so they have a record that is worth preserving. I have to admit that I have never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It isn’t quite such an iconoclastic book in the UK.

  12. Lovely review. Tracy Chevalier is one of those authors I KEEP meaning to read and yet never get around to. I’m interested to know she’s patchy. Which ones have you enjoyed the most?

    1. ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ is probably the best, but ‘Remarkable Creatures’ is worth looking at as well. As long as you remember that she tells rather than shows!

  13. I bet this book made for some really good discussion! I’ve never read Chevalier and honestly, she isn’t top on my list, but in the context of your summer school it would have happily read the book.

    1. One of the aims of the Summer School is to place novels in a context that helps us to understand them more thoroughly and I think we were more successful in that this year than ever before, Stefanie.

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