Book Review: The Last Runaway

By Tracy Chevalier

The Last RunawayChevalier’s first novel set on American soil (a “love letter home,” the expat Londoner has called it) opens with a violent case of seasickness. Honor Bright is accompanying her sister, Grace, across the Atlantic in 1850; their destination is Faithwell, Ohio, where Grace will marry a fellow Quaker who previously emigrated from southern England. The recently jilted Honor welcomes the chance to escape the pity of her community, but winds up spending most of the 30-day journey on the ship’s deck, leaning over the railing. When she finally reaches land, Honor realizes she will never be able to set sail again. She is in America for keeps.

Rather than excitement, Honor feels marooned. Especially when Grace is struck with yellow fever and dies, leaving Honor to bounce around—stitching bonnets for a crusty milliner named Belle and having a close encounter with Belle’s dashing but dangerous brother, Donovan—before moving in with her sister’s betrothed and his late brother’s widow. Honor finds her new home untended and its mistress unfriendly. Everything about Ohio feels makeshift and precarious to Honor and yet she soon knits herself to its legacy, helping Belle move runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada.

While the story suffers in places from cliché (the twinning of meanness and poor housekeeping skills in Abigail seems particularly antiquated), there is plenty of eloquently rendered description. Recovering from a bout of malaria, Honor gazes out the window and becomes mesmerized by “the slowly shifting shadows across the dusty ground.” And though some characters feel formulaic (i.e. bad-boy-with-a-deep-soul Donovan), Chevalier fleshes out her protagonist with more complexity: Honor’s principles often tip over into self-righteousness; her bravery is matched by moments of sheer passivity and stubbornness. She will not entertain the thought of returning to England, but nothing measures up to her former life. And this is perhaps the book’s strongest thread: the story of a young woman who flails against her circumstances, then finally figures out how to live with them.

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