Monday, 7 October 2013

The Last Runaway

Most of us don't like change. It is scary and unnerving and rocks our safe, little worlds. But (there's always a but, isn't there?!) in my observation, change usually brings out the best in people. It forces us to dig deep and find that inner resilience we all possess, but that we'd rather not use too often, thank you very much. And so it is that today I am pleased to offer you something a little more erudite than of late: Tracy Chevalier's The Last Runaway.

Chevalier is one of my heroines, and one of the most intelligent and engaging writers I have ever come across. She has the patience of an academic researcher combined with the ability of a master storyteller. She has nailed it again here with a gripping tale revolving around Honor Bright, a young Quaker girl who sets sail from Dorset in 1850 with her about-to-be-married sister to start a new life in America. However, before they reach their destination, her sister succumbs to yellow fever and Honor is left to build an entirely different life than she was expecting for herself in this strange and often hostile new land.

Chevalier manages to combine a tense tale of the Underground Railroad with a potted history of the art of quilting as well as giving us an incisive view into the lives of the pioneering Americans of that time. The issue of slavery runs deep through America's history and conscience and Chevalier has tackled the subject beautifully, laying out the moral, economic, cultural and personal aspects without any preaching and all the while spinning her fast-paced tale.

There is a stunning amount of detail here to weave in without bogging down the storyline and it is to her unending credit that it only ever serves to enhance her writing. It is this level of detail combined with Chevalier's very visual writing style that allows her to paint extremely vivid pictures with her words. In my mind's eye, I can see quite clearly everything she describes, from the patterns on the different styles of quilts to the frontier farm that Honor ends up on. My heart pounded as she described hiding in a hayloft waiting out the attentions of the slave hunter and she made me feel slighty queasy when describing Honor's seasickness on her month-long voyage to America.

If you had told Honor when she set out from Dorset what she would be capable of in the New World, she would not have believed you. This is her story of resilience and the ability to adapt to change during difficult times, both on a personal and national level. It poses questions that we would still do well to try to answer, both for ourselves within our own lives, but also at a larger remove. Honor Bright is a compelling character who stayed with me long after I finished reading. She fully embodies the pioneering spirit of the young America she finds herself in, even though at first she does not recognize this in herself.

If you want something with a little meat on its bones, but that still grabs hold of you and won't let go til you've turned the last page -- this is it.  I read this book in three days, staying up late into the night to find out how Honor reconciles the choices she makes. It is gripping and wholly believable, with a safisfying ending, which two-thirds of the way through the novel I was wondering how on earth Chevalier would pull off.... but pull it off, she most certainly did!

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