‘Quilts and quakers’ – The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

tlrtcIt is 1880 and Honor Bright, a decent, upstanding Quaker sort, sets sail from Bristol in the company of her sister Grace for America and a new start. Honor has recently been disappointed in love – she had been lined up for a chap called Samuel who had instead left both her and the faith for we presume a lady of looser morals. As a result, fresh from the hurt, the idea of leaving the country for a new start, albeit in the wake of her sister who was herself looking to be married to a gentleman called Adam Cox upon arrival, appealed. Of course, few things being easy, by the end of the first chapter, Honor has endured a terrible sea voyage and lost her sister to yellow fever. America, it seems, will be an experience she endures alone. Thank whichever Lord you worship then that Honor has her quilts to keep her company.

Honor is a big quilter and The Last Runaway offers Chevalier plenty of opportunity to show us what she has learned on the subject as she researched the book. Star of Bethlehem quilts, patchwork quilts, applique quilts, wedding quilts, signature quilts – the list goes on. Honor finds a measure of relief from the strangeness of a new country in sewing, and attracts attention from the locals while she is temporarily working in a hat shop waiting for Adam Cox to come and pick her up. The sense we get, filtered through Honor, is that American technique is somewhat slapdash and hurried compared to English technique. Similarly, at the various Quaker meetings she attends (Chevalier has done her research as far as Quakers are concerned too), she is struck both by the cultural differences between the two countries and by how difficult she finds it to attain the kind of peace she had achieved in the past (Quakers are apparently given to sitting in silence, looking inward, searching for the Lord – Honor struggles in the early days of her new life).

Put up with Adam Cox and his brother’s widow in an arrangement that draws gossip from the local community (one man with two unmarried women, heavens to Murgatroyd!), Honor again feels awkward and her strange relationship with Donovan, the local slave hunter, and a twinkly eyed local Quaker called Jack Haymaker offer her potential escape routes. It is more or less at this point, however, that we get to the meat of the novel – which is of course slavery. Ohio, where the story is set, pit itself against slavery but of course the inhabitants of Ohio were themselves to subject to slavery abetting laws and so some people – such as the Haymakers – find themselves in a curious position, considering themselves anti-slavery but reluctant to aid and abet any slaves who chance across their land on what is known as the underground railway. Honor herself has no such qualms and does all she can. This tension is arguably the most compelling element of the novel.

But don’t be distracted by tension or compulsion. Honor has sewing to do. Her new mother in law wants her to fashion a whole mess of quilts as part of the arrangement whereby she can marry Jack. And there are hats too – Honor’s millinery chum, Belle, is on hand to discuss the differences between local communities in terms of what they will or will not bear when it comes to hats. Honor prefers quilts, if she’s asked, but she is very fond of the hat Belle gives her to wear, even if it seems to attract undue stares and mumbles and murmurs along the lines of whether or not it’s appropriate for a nice Quaker girl such as Honor to be seen wearing hats that include the colour yellow. Lawks a lordy, what is a girl to do.

Rose Tremain says that The Last Runaway is the best thing Chevalier has done since Girl with the Pearl Earring. We don’t quite agree. It isn’t as good a novel as her last, Remarkable Creatures – which again demonstrated Chevalier’s skill when it comes to research but married it to a plot that felt like it had somewhere to go. The Last Runaway takes it’s time to get where it’s going. It’s very wholesome, to be sure (there is definitely a whiff of Little House on the Prairie about proceedings, even a bit of rough and tumble in a cornfield is relayed to the reader as if it was an uncomfortable carriage ride) and slavery as a subject is interesting but the novel seems to afford at least as much priority to both quilts and Quakers when, to me, they should be background and context.

By the time the novel reaches its climax, one can’t help but be reminded somewhat of Charles Portis’ True Grit, which arguably had as little action as The Last Runaway and featured a stand-off as explosive and quickly dealt with as Chevalier’s resolution here – but Portis handles detail and pacing a lot better than Chevalier does. For the novel to work, it either requires the kind of loving detail, say, Donna Tartt afforded The Little Friend or the kind of beguiling characters that Portis conjures in True GritThe Last Runaway suffers a surfeit of neither.

All told, the experience of reading The Last Runaway is akin to reading something which you can sense is perfectly accomplished and quite possibly entertaining to some but most definitely not for us.

Any Cop?: One for Chevalier’s more dedicated fans, perhaps.


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