The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier follows a naive quaker girl, Honor Bright, who leaves Bristol for a new life in America with her sister Grace, who is going to marry her fiancé and start a new life there. When her sister dies of yellow fever on the journey over, Honor finds herself alone in a strange country with no family or friends. She encounters Donovan Mills, a ruthless, rude and arrogant slave-catcher who takes a shine to Honor and who, for some reason, she in turn finds quite attractive. She ends up staying with his local milliner Belle Mills, who becomes good friends with and soon finds out is Donovan’s sister. Honor learns more about the slave trade in America through Belle, and about the ‘Underground Railroad’, an illegal, covert network of people who help rescue and smuggle away slaves trying to get to Canada and to their freedom, of which Belle is part of. Though certainly not a fan of the idea of slavery, due to her Quaker background which advocates equality for everyone, Honor does not take particular action to help them until later into the novel.
Feeling lonely and vulnerable, Honor goes on to marry Jack Haymaker, a local dairy farmer, and becomes part of his unwelcoming family that includes his judgemental mother Judith and his whiney sister Dorcas. They do not want her to become involved in the Underground Railroad in any way but Honor finds that the more she learns about the people who are struggling for their freedom, the less detached she can feel from their situation.
“I have a bed and enough to eat and kind people about me. God is still with me. For these things I am grateful and have no reason to complain” – Honor Bright.
Although Honor does feel more affected by the slaves and their plights as the book goes on, the focus seems more on other aspects and storylines, such as her marriage to Jack, her background as a Quaker and her love of quilting. Because of this, the descriptions of the slaves on the run seem to be almost a side story, tucked away from the main narrative. We learn how those who help slaves on an almost daily basis- such as Belle- cope and feel about it, and how brash and determined slave catchers such as Donovan are, but we never get to hear much about the ordeal that slaves themselves have to go through, and their deeper feelings.
We don’t learn a great deal about Honor’s husband Jack Haymaker, who is also a Quaker, apart from some of the history with his father, and so he seems, as a character, fairly undeveloped. Like Honor he is not in favour of slavery but equally does not wish to go against the recently passed ‘Fugitive Slave Act’, which makes it illegal to help a runaway slave. He is emphatic that Honor should not become involved in the Underground Railroad, and the reader has no real reason to feel that this would be a problem until Honor suddenly becomes so upset that Jack will not let her help them that she runs away herself. It seems bizarre that Honor feels even an ounce of attraction for someone as vile as slave-catcher Donovan whilst also wanting to help slaves escape herself.
None of the characters in The Last Runaway really drew me in, though my favourite was by far straight-talking Belle who became good friends with Belle, somewhat surprisingly as their personalities seem so at odds with each other. Similarily Mrs Reed, a free black woman who is also part of the Underground Railroad, is a strong, opinionated character who risks her safety to help others.
Perhaps it was the Quaker upbringing but I felt Honor was just a little too one-dimensional and drippy; when she was staging her silent protest I felt like screaming at her to do something useful to help the runaways instead of refusing to speak, despite the fact that her Quaker beliefs led to her refusal to speak.
“It is less distracting in the silence, she said. Sustained silence allows one truly to listen to what is deep inside. We call it waiting in expectation.” – Honor Bright
Honor seems an imperfect and submissive protagonist, despite her helping the slaves more and more as the novel went on, but she evidently does have a strong conscience that leads her into her acts of kindness towards those who need her.
I do feel like Tracy Chevalier had really researched before she wrote The Last Runaway; the descriptions of the landscape, social anxieties and Quaker beliefs were really interesting, particularly regarding the way slavery was part of everyday life in America. Despite this, I really can’t quite make up my mind about this book! I was really interested in the subject matter- I haven’t read many novels that touch upon slavery and Quaker beliefs/ lifestyle- and the fact that it was nice and easy to read meant it didn’t require tonnes of concentration. The characters were just a little wooden for my liking, which was a shame as themes of slavery and the Underground Railroad were actually very interesting: I only wish Chevalier had developed these further. I’ve heard her other books are brilliant so I hope to read a few soon and see if I prefer them – particularly Girl With a Pearl Earring.
This novel, although worth reading if you have time, left me feeling unsatisfied and a little disappointed.