Monday, March 18, 2013

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier is known for historical fiction exploring the creation of beautiful works of art  - titles like The Lady and the Unicorn or Girl with the Pearl Earring.  In her latest offering, The Last Runaway, she turns her talents to a subject far less attractive– slavery.
Honor Bright is an English Quaker facing an uncertain future.  Her intended husband has fallen in love with an outsider and left the faith, making a wreck of Honor’s plans in the process.  So when her sister decides to join her own fiancé in America, Honor decides to come along.  But her sister’s death leaves Honor virtually alone and friendless in Ohio. 
As she does what she needs to survive – joining a local Quaker community, eventually marrying and becoming a mother – Honor becomes aware of the horrors of slavery, and feels compelled by her Inner Light to do something about it.  But she soon discovers that every act has consequences, even acts of kindness and mercy.
What I liked best about this book was that while Chevalier doesn’t shy away from the horrors of slavery, she also explores the ethical dilemma of those who found slavery personally abhorrent, but feared the very real legal and personal consequences of participating in activities like the Underground Railroad.   The Quakers as a faith may have denounced slavery, but it was up to each individual to decide how to respond – whether to aid the escapees, boycott southern cotton, or, like Honor’s new husband and family, fearful of losing everything all they hold dear, do nothing at all.
For other recent novels dealing with the slavery and the Civil War, try Jennifer Chiaverini’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker or Path of Freedom by Jennifer Hudson Taylor.  To find out more about the Underground Railroad, those who ‘rode’ it and those who helped, check out some of our many titles, both fiction and nonfiction, on the subject.

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