Honor Bright, a modest English Quaker who moves to Ohio in 1850, finds herself alienated and alone in a strange land. Sick from the moment she leaves England, and fleeing personal disappointment, she is forced by family tragedy to rely on strangers in a harsh, unfamiliar landscape.
Nineteenth-century America is practical, precarious, and unsentimental, and scarred by the continuing injustice of slavery. In her new home Honor discovers that principles count for little, even within a religious community meant to be committed to human equality.
However, drawn into the clandestine activities of the Underground Railroad, a network helping runaway slaves escape to freedom, Honor befriends two surprising women who embody the remarkable power of defiance. Eventually she must decide if she too can act on what she believes in, whatever the personal costs.
I was eager to read The Last Runaway after reading an interview by the author in a recent newspaper and thought the premise sounded interesting, however the actual story has proved to be a bit of a disappointment and I’m still not sure what the author was trying to convey.
The blurb promises an intriguing tale of a young English Quaker girl who gets caught up in the Underground Railroad in Ohio, which in turn forces her to examine her own principles and religious beliefs. However, that isn’t what we got as Honor seems to be entirely focused on pointing out the inadequacies of America in comparison to her beloved England. Why doesn’t she simply go home? Apparently, she was so sick on the journey over, she can’t face returning home which is quite an entirely weak reason.
The novel focuses on two strands: quilting and runaway slaves but neither are particularly brought to life. Instead of exploring the rich history of quilting, Honor spends most of her time being horrified by the appliqué methods employed by the American quilters, while extolling her own virtues as a exemplary stitcher. Honor’s issues with the quilts in general start to get a bit repetitive as the book progresses and her constant bragging that she was better than anyone else got on my nerves.
The second major theme is the Underground Railway which helps runaway slaves escape to safety in the north and I was actually expecting this to be the main focus of the book but it was merely skimmed over. The book would have been so much richer if Chevalier had explored the history of the Underground Railway and how it came about in the first place. Honor stumbles across it by accident and seems to have an uncanny instinct for sensing the presence of slaves hiding in her immediate surroundings, yet it is never explained why she is so determined to help them. She barely understands the rudimentary parts of American society and her ignorance regarding the politics of the region, leads her to making some very poor decisions.
Since the Quakers value equality, Honor believes it is her duty to help the runaway slaves but never stops to think about the consequences her actions may have on others, especially her new in-laws. When the Haymakers find out Honor is helping the runaways, they initially turn a blind eye to it but a change in the law forces them to forbid her from it. Honor remains defiant in her actions, despite being told how the Haymakers once lost everything they had through helping slaves, and this did not sit well with me at all. Honor believes the Haymakers do not share her beliefs and this forces her into making the decision to leave them as she cannot condone their actions. The problem is the Haymakers do share her principles, they’ve just learned the hard way how dangerous it is to continue. I did not find Honor’s actions here at all honourable and when she does run with a female slave, her reasons for running are trite in comparison to the point of ridiculousness. Simply put, Honor comes across as a naive child who pouts whenever she doesn’t get her own way.
The other disappointment was the character portrayal as I never felt I got to know any of them that well as Honor is so quiet and prefers to spend so much time alone. The two women who are supposed to be so influential in Honor’s life barely make an appearance as does Donovan, the slave hunter, to whom she is attracted. At first I thought, Donovan was going to be a Rhett Butler type who would sweep Honor of her feet despite their differences, but it never happens. Donovan keeps his distance, apart from the odd encounter, but it just goes nowhere and seemed rather pointless in the end.