Tracy Chevalier is so skilled at getting under the skin of the protagonist in a specific period whether it’s a 19th century fossil collector or a 15th century Belgian weaver, you always believe her.
Honor Bright is a real person from page 1 of ‘The Last Runaway’ and you are rooting for her. The book tackles a difficult subject: the rights and wrongs of helping escaping slaves, and the moral issue this poses for Ohio’s Quakers. Honor struggles to understand this sometimes frightening new country with its huge skies and geometrical roads, forthright people and different social rules. Even the air seems strange. “I feel when I am in it as if the air around me has shifted and is not the same air I breathed and moved in back in England, but is some other substance,” she writes to her parents.
Chevalier does her research thoroughly, but feels no need to wave the depth of her research in her reader’s face. Instead it informs every simple description. Woven throughout the book is Honor’s sewing of quilts. Even this is different in Ohio where Honor’s calm nature and precise sewing is admired by the local hat-wearing ladies, but her needle workmanship is deemed overly exact for the local Quaker ladies who prefer to quickly sew appliqué quilts rather than take time to plan traditional patchwork designs.
Strong women play a key role in the book. Honor is a strong character, though perhaps she does not know it. Belle Mills, the local milliner is strong too. Honor describes Belle, “If women were meant to look like doves these days, Belle resembled a buzzard.” The quilt Honor most admires is owned and made by Mrs Reed, a small black woman who decorates her hat with fresh wildflowers.
[this review first appeared on www.waterstones.com on March 9, 2013]
‘The Last Runaway’ by Tracy Chevalier
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