Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

This book was recommended to me by my cousin as it is about quilting and I loved it. It is set in 1850 and about Honor Bright who leaves England for America to accompany her sister Grace, who is to marry Adam Cox,  who had emigrated earlier. They are Quakers and although she is excited to be starting a new life, the sea journey leaves her exhausted from sea sickness. Then when they arrive tragedy strikes and her sister is stuck down with yellow fever and dies. Honor is alone in a strange land and has to rely on her sister’s intended husband.
But it all does not fare well for her. She makes her way to the small settlement of Oberlin to join Adam Cox and his recently bereaved sister-in-law Abigail. It becomes clear to Honor that she is not truly welcomed by Abigail, and that Adam Cox finds the situation both awkward and difficult to deal with. Honor marries a local man, Jack Haymaker and goes to live with him and his family.

Honor finds a true friend in milliner Belle, although her slave-catcher brother Donovan is not such an ally and displays a unhealthy amount of interest in this quiet and modest Quaker girl. Through her friendship with Belle, Honor soon finds herself involved with the Underground Railroad - a network of people who were sympathetic to runaway slaves who were trying to find freedom in North America or Canada.. The Fugitive Slave Act had been passed and it was illegal to assist a runaway slave, there were heavy penalties to be paid if caught. Quakers were anti-slavery and wanted to assist the runaways, but their moral dilemma was that to do so would be to break the laws of the land. The Haymaker family forbid Honor to assist the runaways, and this is the start of the breakdown in their relationship. Throughout these times, Honor finds some comfort in her quilt-making, she is a fine seamstress and putting together these small pieces of material bring her some peace and make memories for her.

This is not a fast-moving story by any means, it is gently drawn out and each character is formed steadily. Honor, although the lead character, is not the most interesting, she can sometimes appear holier-than-thou and often is portrayed as appearing superior to those around her. Belle, the milliner, on the other hand is a strong, feisty character, a woman who is colourful and interesting with firm principles and morals. Belle's slave-catcher brother Donovan is something of an enigma - on the one hand he is a cruel man, and every now and again, he shows a little vulnerability.

But I thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn't wait to pick it up each day.

I shall read something else by this author, perhaps her most famous, 'Girl with a Pearl Earing'

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