Review: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Edit: This was inadvertently posted with Sarah as the author of the review, but it was written by Sandra.
...she held out a hand toward Honor. A small, ambiguous gesture, it still had the power to untwist Honor's stomach, for it said: I am running away. Help me. She and the woman were now linked by that gesture.
In Tracy Chevalier's The Last Runaway, Honor Bright, a fresh new arrival and Quaker from England, stepped upon America's shores carrying within her an idealism bred from years of an upbringing that taught her that,
“...everyone has a measure of Light in them and though the amount can vary, all must try to live up to their measure.”
Honor feels bound by her morality and what she believes are universal truths to take a stand, which ultimately requires she follow her heart. Her heart would lead her to take a road less taken, to defy her husband's wishes and the law of her newly-adopted country.
Robert Frost put into words the dilemma that played upon Honor's sense of right. She looked upon the horrors of slavery that opened before her and knew she must choose. Two roads lie before her and one she must trod upon.
Honor's first less travelled road was prompted by her decision to accompany her sister to America where her sister planned to marry and settle in Ohio with her betrothed and settle into life as a farmer's wife. This road for Honor began as a roiling and wretched seasickness lasting the entire trip across the grey sea. The experience left a horrible memory for Honor. She determined sea travel was not an adventure she would elect to again experience, so staying in America was to be her fate.
Upon arriving in their new county, Honor's sister succumbs to illness and dies before seeing the man she intended to marry. Honor continues the trip to Ohio alone where she temporarily stays with her sister's intended spouse.
In England, morality was familiar and ordered, righteousness a way of life--in America, the lines blurred.
Honor comes in contact with a slave catcher who sneers at her with a haunting question.
You think just 'cause Quakers say everyone is equal in God's eyes, that means they'll be equal in each other's?
The Quaker meetings in America held the same period of silence as in England, creating a sense of communion Honor treasures. The meetings were different from her everyday life, from the dark woods that covered and hid the countryside. Still, in America they lacked the quality of silence that previously would gather and thicken around her. In Faithwell, where Honor now lived, the meeting house consisted of a bright white room with walls and windows on all sides. It held a different feel for her, a harshness she found disturbing.
Finding the home of her once to be brother in-law awkward, Honor comes to live and work for a kind woman who is the local slave tracker's sister. The slave tracker becomes fascinated with Honor and she horrified by his employment as a bounty hunter. She sees him literally herding captured slaves through town to become chattel again so he can collect his money.
In America time seemed to be buckling: stretching and contracting before her, the steady rhythm Honor had been accustomed to disrupted.
Marriage, she decides,
“...is the only way I can make a place for myself here. Otherwise I am afloat, with no idea how to find land again.”
The buckling and contracting became more dizzying and confusing when she leaves the home of her friend for whom she has worked and developed a sisterly love for. Where she once felt a semblance of contentment working with and helping her friend, marriage left her confused and disturbed.
Honor sees the enslavement before her, signs of the runaways who travel at night and the horror of their debasement when captured and returned to the slave owners. The idealism of her faith places high expectations on her. Her new life rubs against her beliefs jarring painfully and leaving her soul feeling like a sore festering and running.
Her new family and husband forbade her to help the runaways who hide in their woods and buildings during the day. She could put their farm in jeopardy if she were to aide them, since the new slave laws require she turn over knowledge of hidden escapees to the authorities.
Painful questions pound against one another.
Lies are wrong she knows, but are they wrong when good results? Should lies be held as right when lives are saved? Are there moral laws that take precedence over human laws?
Her faith and her heart lead her to break with the wishes of her husband and his family. She must defy the law of her new nation. A path toward justice but filled with fear, tribulation and danger.
Chevalier's complex and beautiful book left me feeling uplifted with hope for the goodness of humanity despite the horror that we witness daily, that shadows our history. Honor's path toward goodness and moral enlightenment opens the mind like sunshine coming through a darkened cloud. It's a beautifully meaningful story with complex characters and ideas.
The Last Runaway holds an honored placed on my bookshelves. It's meaningful, well-written and uplifting.
The Last Runaway tells a beautiful story of one lone woman who follows her own road less taken leading to redemption and love. It will leave you believing that goodness and light will ultimately triumph.