Title: The Last Runaway
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Release Date: January 8, 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Honor Bright leaves her close-knit Quaker community in England for the mysterious shores of America. Honor’s sister is to be married to a Quaker man living there and Honor is accompanying her, hoping for a better future for herself. But tragedy strikes on the journey, and Honor is left alone in a foreign land. She finds herself in Ohio, a state crucial to escaping slaves and is shocked to find that her Quaker peers don’t have the same anti-slavery beliefs she believes go hand in hand with their religion. Honor is left struggling between what she feels is right and the desire to fit in with her new community.
The Last Runaway is a historical novel set in Ohio in the 1850s, a state that was vital to the survival of the Underground Railroad, the path for escaped slaves to find freedom. But making it north of the Mason-Dixon line isn’t sufficient for these slaves; they must make it to Canada to find true freedom. Why? Because of something called the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed escaped slaves caught in northern states to be captured and returned to their owners. This is the horror that Honor Bright faces when she arrives in Ohio, lost and alone.
Honor’s a solid character to narrate The Last Runaway. She seems simple at first, in shock at the death of her sister and without much depth. But as the novel progresses, and she becomes passionate about the plight of slaves, the reader sees a spark of independence in Honor. But at the same time, it’s not easy to fully blame the Quakers for their passive role in the Underground Railroad. Many try to help, yet when they are caught, they suffer the worst of fates. It’s a novel where shades of grey, rather than absolutes, dominate. One thing is for sure, though: Honor cannot sit by while human beings are treated like animals, regardless of what her religion and society dictates.
The center of The Last Runaway are the moral questions the characters in the book face again and again. It’s not just Honor that is struggling with these issues; Chevalier wrote each character carefully, ensuring that even the worst of them had some redeeming qualities. It’s difficult to condemn anyone in this novel; the author makes it clear that our past experiences shape who we are, and it’s not easy to judge others when you haven’t had the breadth of their experiences.
If you’re looking for a contemplative read, The Last Runaway is a great choice. The interesting moral issues would make this a great book club pick, as readers will want to discuss Honor and her Quaker community. This is a book all about choices, how the choices we make affect others and have consequences we can’t foresee, both good and bad. It’s an engaging look at a difficult period in history, and the price of speaking out and standing up for what you believe in.
Other books by Tracy Chevalier: