Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Last Runaway - Tracy Chevalier

Running away from life, from embarrassment, from cruelty, from pain, from oppression - these are central themes in Chevalier's latest historical novel. Honor Bright, the central character in this novel needs to leave her home in Britain, after being jilted by her fiance. Rather than facing the constant pity of her staunch Quaker community, Honor opts to emigrate to America with her sister Grace. Grace is going to be married to a Quaker shopkeeper in Ohio and invites Honor to accompany her. Quiet, reserved Honor grabs the chance to get away from her painful situation, but when Grace dies from yellow fever before reaching Ohio, Honor is left to her own devices and the kindness of strangers.

Honor's solitary journey takes a new tack when she discovers that there are people in her new community who aid runaway slaves find their way to freedom in Canada. Honor develops a conflicted relationship with a cocksure slave-catcher who pursues Honor's attentions. When Honor marries a good Quaker farmboy, she hopes that her life will return to normal, but no. She is faced with feeling the interloper in the family by her husband's female family members. She sees the telltale signs of runaways as they pass through the fields, hide behind the sheds, shelter in the woods and she feels compelled to help them along in her own simple way. She leaves water and food hidden behind the barn, leaves a shed door open on a cold afternoon, finds ways to give short messages of directions to the next safe spot she knows. In her own way, she is running away from the constraints put on her by her husband and family and defying their authority as a way of asserting her own moral identity.

Honor Bright is a character I wanted to stand by and nurture, as her hat-making friend does from afar. She is a woman who needs the encouragement to be 'who she is', to kiss off the constraints of her overbearing and petty relatives. Her moment of making a stand forces her husband to take stock of his own situation within the family and step out to claim his wife and child and live with more freedom ... at least that's MY take on the story.

So... who is the runaway in the title she or he?

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