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.

Summer School Book One: The Tenderness of Wolves ~ Stef Penney

51gTxN+G1cLThe first book that we read for this year’s Summer School was Stef Penney’s Costa winning novel, The Tenderness of Wolves.  For me, this was actually a third read and it says a lot for the strength of the book that I was still able to enjoy it and find new things to think about despite already knowing the text very well.

For anyone who hasn’t read the novel it is set in the Hudson Bay area of Canada in 1867 and tells the story of the search for Francis Ross, a seventeen year old who may or may not have been involved in the murder of a French trapper, Laurent Jammet.  Several parties are involved in the search:  the Hudson Bay Company sends its representatives, his mother sets out with the help of William Parker, an Indian tracker and Thomas Sturrock, a retired journalist, who is actually more interested in a bone tablet that he had hoped to persuade Jammet to sell to him, shows an interest as well.

Inevitably, there was discussion of how well Penney had depicted the harsh Canadian winter landscape, given that she had never visited the country, but most of our conversation focused on the linked issues of characters coming to know themselves better and the wider question of how our perceptions dictate the way in which we react to the world around us and the people in it.

The first time I read this novel I was struck by the images of someone’s vision coming into focus.  The most literal of these surfaces early on in relation to Donald Moody, a naive young man who has made the journey from Scotland to join the Hudson Bay Company.

Shortly after he emerged from the bright fog of childhood, Donald had to acknowledge that he had difficulty seeing objects at any distance…he stopped hailing people…as he had no idea who they were.  He developed a reputation for coldness.  He confided his unease to his mother and was provided with a pair of uncomfortable wire-framed spectacles.  This was the first miracle of his life – the way the spectacles brought him back to the world.

There are, however, much more subtle explorations of the notion that our understanding of and relationship to the people and the world around us is dependent on the way in which we see.  Mrs Ross ponders on this in respect of the landscape that surrounds their small settlement.

Sometimes you find yourselves looking at the forest in a different way. Sometimes it’s no more than the trees that provide houses and warmth, and hide the earth’s nakedness, and you’re glad of it.  And then sometimes, like tonight, it is a vast dark presence that you can never see the end of; it might, for all you know, have not just length and breadth to lose yourself in, but also immeasurable depth, or something else altogether.

And then she expands on that thought to include her husband.

And sometimes you find yourself looking at your husband and wondering: is he the straightforward man you think you know – provider, friend, teller of poor jokes that nonetheless make you smile – or does he too have depths that you have never seen?  What might he not be capable of?

One of the questions that haunts the more thoughtful characters in this novel is how well they may or may not know the people around them, especially those that society has told then they should or should not be able to put their faith in.  Two members of our group have had experience of living in countries colonised under British rule and they were shocked by what they learnt of the underhand dealings of the Government backed institutions in Canada.  As they said, they had been brought up to think that such ventures as the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company were the basis on which good governance was built and while they were aware of the damage done on the Indian subcontinent by the powers-that-be they had still retained their belief in the Canadian fur trading enterprise.

In the wilderness that Mrs Ross and Donald find themselves traversing they have to put their faith in the very people they have been taught to suspect, the native Canadian Indians.  Parker and Jacob see the land in a completely different way to that of the incomers.  Comparing his understanding of the wilderness which has come to him via the written word to the way in which Jacob comprehends the world he has grown up in

Donald has a suspicion that the book-learnt knowledge he imparts to Jacob is not really his to give; he just happens to know how to tap into it, whereas when Jacob tells him something, he seems to own it entirely, as if it comes from inside himself.

The question of the importance society attaches to the written word is one that is raised in this novel but not thoroughly explored.  I was sorry about that because I think it is an interesting aspect of the manner in which we in the West judge indigenous peoples.  We have come to value the ability to record our thoughts and actions through the written word to such an extent that we question the sophistication of those groups who have not seen the need to develop such a system.  As someone said, one of the first reasons for developing writing was to make sure that the people you were trading with weren’t swindling you.  Perhaps, where there is more trust there is no need to develop such a fail-safe.

Our discussion ranged over many other areas.  I will just raise one.  As well as winning the Costa Award, The Tenderness of Wolves was also named Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year.  Several of us (crime fiction readers all) questioned whether or not that was appropriate.  Yes, the book begins with a murder and the action is driven by a quest to discover ‘whodunit’, but does that automatically make  it a crime novel?  I’m not certain where I stand on this.  I don’t find the crime the important part of the book.  I am much more concerned with the journeys of self-discovery that many of the characters are making.  On the other hand, I don’t want to imply that crime fiction isn’t capable of exploring issues of great social and ethical import.  Indeed, at its best, crime fiction is a prime literary means of exposing the problems of society to public view.  I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this and perhaps come back to it in a later post.  In the meantime, what do you think about the question?

Will Someone Please Do My Ironing?

ImageThere are two things which never cease to amaze me about Summer School.  The first is that something which is so invigorating and energising while it is happening can leave me so completely exhausted once it is over.  I love the opportunity to get together with a group of friends to do nothing more than talk about books. (Well, we drink tea and eat a lot of biscuits as well, but the impulse to indulge in that sort of behaviour is built into the DNA of the printed word, isn’t it and so doesn’t count.) I never want to stop when our allotted time is up and fortunately neither does anyone else; we often overrun by nearly as much again.  But, once it is over, I find I need to spend the next twenty-four hours doing absolutely nothing just to recoup all the energy I have spent when I thought what I was doing was replenishing it.  I suspect that what I have been replenishing is the energy of the soul.  Unfortunately, what I need right now is the energy to tackle the mountain of ironing which this morning seems to be even higher than the dreaded tbr mountain.  So, if there is anyone offering out there, you are more than welcome to call round!

The second thing, and it’s one which happens every year, is the way in which the books chosen purely on the strength of having loosely connected themes suddenly start to talk to each other in ways that we might never have expected.  By the end of the week we are talking as much about the books that have gone before as we are about the last book on the list and this year branching out into what the novels have to say about current events as well. I am going to put up posts about each of the titles and reflect a little on the nature of the discussion that went on but I thought today that I would just give you a hint of the type of topics that we found ourselves talking about.

The three books we read, under the overall heading of Breaking New Ground, were Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant.  Of course, we talked about the individual themes of each of the novels and the merits of the books as literature, but there were also specific themes that kept cropping up.

For example, we repeatedly found ourselves discussing the way in which how we see a situation colours our experience of it and how we see an individual dictates our relationship to them.  Coupled with this was the question of how we actually look.  So, if we don’t look carefully enough at something, if we see it only partially, or out of focus, then we are going to misinterpret what we see and find ourselves in trouble because we have misjudged our position.

Another theme that was common across all three titles was that of the conflict between the rule and an individual’s conscience.  Sometimes this surfaced as one of the character’s having to decide whether or not to obey orders laid down by a secular institution he or she was beginning to question. Sometimes it was the more personal dilemma of whether or not to remain true to the religious principles that had previously been the backbone of your existence.

The immigrant experience is, of course, common to all three novels, but a question we perhaps hadn’t expected ourselves to be discussing was brought up in two of the books; namely what happens when one group of immigrants is made to feel unwelcome, especially when we are talking about people who are fourth or fifth generation.  Trying to pretend that the ‘go back where you came from’ lobby isn’t every bit as vocal today as it was in the times when these books are set is to imitate the proverbial ostrich.  As is trying to duck the question of the use of extreme violence to convince your enemies to capitulate.  Discussing various scenes in The Lieutenant two days after the news of James Foley’s beheading wasn’t easy.

So, all in all, a very thought provoking week and one that I hope to give you a flavour of over the next few posts.  I hope you will feel able to comment on them and that by doing so we can widen the participation of the Summer School and extend the discussion even further.

Summer School ~ August 2014

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280Several posts back I announced the list of possible titles for this year’s Summer School.  Well, the voting is now over and the selection is made and so the Summer School for August 2014 will be reading the selection headed

Breaking New Ground

This comprises three books about people struggling to build a new life in countries far from their original homelands.  Stef Penney’s first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, won her the overall Costa Award in 2006.  Set in 1867, it is, on the surface, a crime novel.  Winter is tightening its grip on Dove River, a tiny isolated settlement in Canada’s Northern Territory, when a man is brutally murdered.  A local woman, Mrs. Ross, discovers the crime scene and sees the tracks leading from the dead man’s cabin north toward the forest and the tundra beyond.  She reports the crime but then almost immediately regrets having done so because her seventeen-year-old son, Francis, has disappeared and consequently is considered a prime suspect.

This novel is about so much more than simply discovering who the killer is, however. It is about the power struggle in the growing township and the way in which people are prepared to go to any lengths to bolster their own position in a new world where there is much wealth for the taking.  It is about what we can see as opposed to what we are prepared to see and it is about what we so quickly become willing to turn a blind eye to.  I’ve already read this book twice, but I have no worries about coming to it a third time; it is one of those novels in which you are bound to find something fresh every time you read it.

In contrast, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway is a new read for me.  I have quite a patchy history with Chevalier’s novels.  Some I have loved and others I have thought very poor indeed.  However, this has had excellent reviews and I heard her read an extract from it at a local book day a couple of months ago and thought it sounded one of her better books.

Honor Bright is a Quaker girl who moves from England to Ohio in 1850. She find herself alienated and alone in a strange land. Sick from the moment she leaves England, and escaping from personal disappointment, she is forced by a family tragedy to rely on strangers in what turns out to be a harsh, unfamiliar landscape.

Her situation becomes even more difficult when she is drawn into the clandestine activities of the Underground Railroad, the network which helped runaway slaves escape to freedom.  Honor has to decide whether or not she is going to stick to her religious principles even when it means jeopardising her own safety and breaking the law of her new country.

Our third novel takes us to a very different part of the world.  Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant is, I think, a remarkable book. Set on the shore of New South Wales in 1788 it is a story of identity and the place that language plays in establishing our understanding of who we are.

Daniel Rooke has always been an outsider, uncomfortable both at school and at home. Consequently, he sees the opportunity to enter the marines and travel to Australia as a lieutenant on the First Fleet, as a chance for a new beginning.  His role on this trip is to construct an observatory to make specific astronomical measurements, a task that he hopes will eventually lead to the sort of scientific discoveries that will make him famous.  However, he finds himself increasingly concerned with the local Aboriginies and with his attempts to bridge the communications gap between them and the colonists, a gap which is to do with far more than just words.

The novel is inspired by the notebooks of astronomer William Dawes and explores the tension between those things that unite all humanity and those that separate one section of humankind from another.  I’m glad that we’re coming to this last because it is the sort of book that it is difficult to follow.

We are going to be discussing these novels during the week beginning August 18th.  As usual, I shall be posting about each book as I read it in preparation and then catching up with a post about the discussion.  If you want to join us and add your comments here then you will be more than welcome.

Summer School ~ August 2014

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280I’m conscious that I haven’t been around much this week and for that my apologies.  I’ve had quite a bit of teaching, with all the preparation that is associated with postgraduate work and I’ve also been finalising the details for this year’s Summer School.

As some of you know, every year I run a Summer School for a group of friends who, like me,  can’t afford to attend any of the more formal literary gatherings.  About this time of year I offer them five sets of books, each set being linked by a different theme, and ask them to choose the one they would most like to spend a week discussing.  There are three books in each set so when the Summer School comes round we meet three times during the week, each time the meeting being hosted by a different member of the group and the discussion being led by a different participant.  That way there is no real burden of preparation other than reading the books on anyone and the only cost that we incur is 50p a day for tea and biscuits.  It works extremely well.  This will be the fifth year we’ve run it.

The forms for book selection will go out next week and this year participants will be asked to choose from amongst the following:

Musical Interlude

The Travelling Hornplayer ~ Barbara Trapido
Bel Canto ~ Ann Patchett
An Equal Music ~ Vikram Seth

The Perfect Spy

Sweet Tooth ~ Ian McEwan
Spies ~ Michael Frayn
Restless ~ William Boyd

On Flanders Field

Restoration ~ Pat Barker
The Eye in the Door ~ Pat Barker
The Ghost Road ~ Pat Barker

Resurrecting the Past

Remarkable Creatures ~ Tracy Chevalier
A Month in the Country ~ J L Carr
The Dig ~ John Preston

Breaking New Ground

The Tenderness of Wolves ~ Stef Penney
The Lieutenant ~ Kate Grenville
The Last Runaway ~ Tracy Chevalier

I’m always glad that I don’t get a vote as to which of the groups we’re going to read because of course I never offer books that I don’t want to spend my summer with and I would be very hard put to choose between these sets.  However, I’m sure you’ve got thoughts as to which would top your list if you were joining us and I would love to hear what those are.  It would be fascinating to see if your overall choice matches up to those who will actually be coming to the Summer School.