I enjoyed Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway for so many reasons. Historical fiction has got to be my favourite genre. The novel has several themes, the Underground Railroad being one of the main themes. The Underground Railroad was not a railroad at all but a network of secret routes, safe houses and people who helped slaves escape from the southern states of America to either the free states in the north or to Canada. The novel’s action takes place prior to the Civil War when Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman, travels from England to Ohio with her sister. Honor soon finds herself alone in America and becomes involved as a link in the chain called the Underground Railroad. I must warn you that this theme does not pick up speed till almost half way through the novel. The reader acquires an understanding of how much courage was involved both on the part of the runaways as well as those who risked life to assist them. One becomes acutely aware that any change that takes place in society happens over time due to the efforts and sacrifices of many. The freedoms we enjoy today are never to be taken for granted.
As a sub-theme to the above is the theme of choice often faced by those who are involved in bringing about such change, the conflict between principle and practicalities. In England, Honor’s principles regarding slavery were clear – that all people being equal in the eyes of God, one person should not be enslaved by another. But in Ohio, it is not that clear an argument. Economic arguments, personal circumstances and laws put Honor in a position to choose. “When an abstract principle became entangled in daily life, it lost its clarity and became compromised and weakened”.
The economics of slavery is something I had not thought about before. Following the industrial revolution and the ability of factories to mass produce clothing, there was a great demand in America, England and Europe for cotton. The southern states produced the cotton, while factories in the north wove it into fabric. The use of slave labour made the cotton inexpensive. The abolition of slavery would push the price of cotton up and threatened to bring about drastic economic consequences to the country. As I read the book I was reminded that we, like Honor Bright, are faced with similar choices today. Our principles of fairness and equality are challenged when the jeans we wear are produced in unsafe factories overseas by workers paid poor wages. As stated in the novel, ‘much of it is not innocent, unsullied material but the result of a compromised world’. We face the same dilemma with diamonds. The problem of exploitation continues.
The reader learns about the involvement of the Quakers in assisting the runaways. We learn of Quaker beliefs, practices and life style. The sewing and quilting theme is beautiful. Creative, intelligent women seem to have expressed themselves through sewing and quilting…`to make even stitches, the seamstress herself had to be steady`. Honor is worried that her marriage quilt is not stitched well. She and Jack `would begin their married life under a quilt of dubious quality. It was not an auspicious start`.
There are some interesting characters in the book besides the protagonist Honor Bright. Mrs. Reed, Belle Mills are some of the characters the reader gets to know and admire. The character of Honor’s husband Jack I felt did not get the author`s attention.
I highly recommend this book for its strong plot, several well developed themes, interesting characters and excellent prose. There is a lot in the book to think and talk about.
Geetha`s love of books began when she was a child. She later turned that love into formal education with a Masters in English Literature and then again into a career for a few years, teaching English at Ethiraj and Fergusson Colleges in India. Though her career took her into the computer industry, Geetha has continued to read both individually as well as part of a book club in Newmarket, Canada where she lives.