Title: The Last Runaway
Writer: Tracy Chevalier
Publishing House: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication: January 1st 2013
Rating: 5 star
‘’I am excluded even from the excluded, she thought.’’
Tracy Chevalier is one of those writers who have contributed in the development of Historical Fiction as we know it today. Her writing contains beautiful metaphors and a successful combination of a fresh, modern feeling and a kind of dialogue that is faithful to the depicted era. Girl With A Pearl Earring managed to bring the Netherlands to focus and started a whole array of books set during the 17th century, inspired by the magnificent painters of this beautiful country. The Last Runaway is equally successful. I dare say that, at times, it is even better…
Ohio, 1850s. The tension between the cities of the North and the cities of the South regarding the abolition of slavery is brewing. The communities are divided over the issue and over their own religious beliefs, The Quakers are considered weird but they are supposed to be honest and supporters of equality. Does this ‘’equality’’ extent to salves? It depends…In the midst of it all, we find Honor. A young Englishwoman whose life changes drastically the moment she set foot in the New World. Her relationships with an array of interesting characters and her convictions compose a beautiful, sad, poignant story.
‘’Well, there you go. We’re all from somewhere else. That’s how Ohio is.’’
The community Chevalier depicts is a mix of opposites. Ohio is a stop on the way North or on the way South. The residents are torn between sympathy and fear. The story is built on the notion of antithesis. Antithesis between our faith and our actions. Between love and duty. Between obligations and wishes. Honor has been brought up to be honest no matter what but there are things she can’t even admit to herself. Donovan is torn between his twisted notion of duty and the demands of his heart. To what extent can we disregard our social and familial duties in order to do what we think is right and just? Do we give in and betray our principles? These are the questions Honor has to face while trying to forge a life in a place that is an amalgam of clashing convictions and troubled souls.
The writing is exceptional. I could go on about all the vivid details, the beautiful imagery, the dialogue. There is an underlying tenderness and softness in the prose even if the subject itself is difficult and harsh. Τhe daily life and customs are masterfully described and the themes that Chevalier uses to compose her story are always relevant to any era. The tone isn’t didactic or preachy but simple, direct and calm like Honor herself.
The characters are major contributors to a successful novel and in this one we have quite a few memorable ones. Honor is a delight in the sense that she’s realistic, determined and persistent. I didn’t think of her as naive. On the contrary, I admired her bravery because she had to face the prejudices of a whole community and the horrible manners of her mother-in-law. Now, I will become controversial here and admit that I would choose a different path and obey my true wishes regarding marriage and family but I understand her motives given the era and the circumstances. This brings us to Donovan, one of the most interesting characters I’ve recently come across. He is complex, almost tragic in his choices, his inner battle. Belle is also exceptional as are Virginie and Mrs Reed. The Haymakers? I definitely could have done without those idiots…
There is an interesting theme permeating the novel. The notion of looking and thinking forward instead of dwelling in misfortune. The American Way. Honor questions this. She considers it a mistake because not remembering leads to the same mistakes over and over again. Judging by the way our world works, I cannot help thinking that she is right. Slavery, war, atrocities committed against the people whose land was stolen by the settlers… Within such a context, future can only become better through togetherness. The end is satisfying but it is clear that Honor isn’t convinced. And she’s right, in my opinion. Noone can speak of equality and continue dividing people into categories. And once more, I cannot help thinking that every successful Historical Fiction novel acts as the clearest mirror reflecting our problematic societies…
(During my research, I stumbled upon two very interesting articles: https://www.thedailybeast.com/tracy-chevaliers-novel-on-ohios-underground-railroad, The Last Runaway Background)