If 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.