I’m a big fan of Ms. Chevalier’s—Burning Bright was fascinating and Girl With a Pearl Earring is one of my favorites—so I was very excited to pick up her new release, The Last Runaway.
Set in Ohio, rather than in Europe—where all of her prior novels are set—the novel captures a quiet Quaker community in the 1850s. Honor Bright has just arrived from England. Her purpose in coming to America was to accompany her sister who was to be married. Unfortunately, her sister dies during the passing and Honor is left alone on a strange, wild frontier where even in a community of Friends (Quakers), the moral boundaries are not always clear.
Honor’s living conditions are on shaky ground at first: she lives with her sister’s fiance Adam and his brother’s wife Abigail—Adam’s brother having died shortly before Honor’s sister. Two women and one man in the same household, none of them married, is a skeptical situation, especially in small Quaker community. Honor knows even before Adam and Abigail announce their wedding that she will have to leave. Having no family ties, the only way to do so is to be married herself.
The one man that Honor finds herself attracted to, unfortunately, is Donovan—a handsome slave catcher. He makes it clear that he would gladly take her as his wife, and even hints that he would submit his views to her Quaker belief that slavery is wrong. Honor will not marry him, but chooses instead to marry a Quaker from the community: Jack. After they marry, Honor joins Jack and his mother Judith and his sister. She quickly learns to be part of their farm, trying as hard as she can to assimilate to their American ways. But despite her efforts, Honor cannot find approval from Jack’s mother Judith.
Honor does not hesitate to start helping slaves who cross through their farm, as she assumes all Quakers would do—all English Quakers, anyway. But Judith will not support her and insists that Honor is putting the farm in danger. Caught in a moral dilemma, Honor decides to ignore her mother-in-law and continue helping slaves, which also puts her at odds with Donovan.
The story is engrossing and fully of lively characters, like Tracy’s other books I’ve read. I love that Tracy is able to write moving stories that engage the moral and political issues of their times. I also enjoy that Tracy does not shy away from a difficult ending—she forces her characters, and her readers, to accept that sometimes life doesn’t always give you a perfect answer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live with it and still find happiness.
What was missing for me in this book was the art. I know that it might not be present in all of her books, but one of the aspects of Burning Bright and Girl With a Pearl Earring that interested me was the involvement of historical people. In Girl With a Pearl Earring it was the painter Johannes Vermeer; in Burning Bright it was the poet William Blake. Those stories got after the heart of those artists’ work and were used to comment on the political situations of the time. In The Last Runaway, Honor does herself have an artistic passion: she makes beautiful quilts and quickly gains a reputation as a masterful sewer. However, in this story the quilts did not play an integral role. They were mostly just a part of Honor’s character. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it made the book a little less gripping for me from a literary perspective. It doesn’t stop me from wanting to read the rest of her novels.