The Last Runaway

Any system of slavery must be abolished. It had seemed simple in England; yet in Ohio that principle was chipped away at, by economic arguments, by personal circumstances, by deep-seated prejudice that Honor sensed even in Quakers.

Honor has traveled from her home and family in England, hoping for a new life in the new world. Her sister is engaged to be married to a man who works with his brother in their general store in a small Quaker town in 1850 Ohio, and Honor has decided to go along with her. Circumstances change quite a bit between the sisters leaving home and arriving in Ohio, and Honor finds herself living a very different life than what she intended.

Ohio is not a slave state, but slavery is very much a part of the political landscape, and runaway slaves regularly make their way past Honor’s house, on their way to Canada and freedom. As a Quaker, Honor feels quite strongly that slavery is evil, and she must do her part to help the runaways along their way. She is confused when her family and neighbors there are not as dedicated to following their inner consciences as she. She is also confused by her strong feelings of attraction toward Donovan, the brother of her new friend Belle. Donovan is about as far from a Quaker as he could be. He is a slave-hunter, and takes great pleasure in tracking runaways down and bringing them back to servitude. He is also very attracted to Honor, Quaker ways and all. That she is helping runaways on their way complicates his attraction for her, but not as much as you might think.

Tracy Chevalier’s newest novel is quite an accomplishment. Her writing is gorgeous, luminous, much as in her previous work, Girl With a Pearl Earring. It’s compelling enough that the story touches you and pulls you in, even while there is not much action from chapter to chapter. Honor’s Quaker beliefs and quiet personality means that she finds much meaning in her interior world. She looks forward to the deep spiritual experience she finds sitting in complete silence at Meetings every Sunday. It is fitting then, that the book has a sense of contemplation, of inner working, even while events are transpiring around Honor.

I really enjoyed The Last Runaway, and the feeling of a specific time and place that it gave me. It almost made me want to quilt. OK, not really, but it did give me a new appreciation of the art, as well as a deeper appreciation of the people involved in very small ways with the Underground Railroad.

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