Friday, 19 April 2013

Review: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The Last Runaway UK cover - Tracy Chevalier
I own every book Tracy Chevalier has written. I've painted portraits with her, I've hunted for fossils and I've woven portraits - each and every time feeling like I was part of the text. Each book has taught me something new, provoked an interest in a section of history I barely knew existed. And yet I had little previous interest in The Last Runaway. It's about a very specific time and a place completely alien to and after all, it had been a while since Ms Chevalier had produced a book. It would be fair to say that I approached it with reservations... which were then completely blown away.

Plot summary:  When modest Quaker Honor Bright sails from Bristol with her sister, she is fleeing heartache for a new life in America, far from home. But tragedy leaves her alone and vulnerable, torn between two worlds and dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Life in 1850s Ohio is precarious and unsentimental. The sun is too hot, the thunderstorms too violent, the snow too deep. The roads are spattered with mud and spit. The woods are home to skunks and porcupines and raccoons. They also shelter slaves escaping north to freedom.

Should Honor hide runaways from the ruthless men who hunt them down? The Quaker community she has joined may oppose slavery in principle, but does it have the courage to help her defy the law? As she struggles to find her place and her voice, Honor must decide what she is willing to risk for her beliefs.

Let me start by saying I had no interest in 1850s Ohio. It might even be more accurate to say that I had minus interest in 1850s Ohio. It just wasn't something I'd ever cared about and couldn't see myself ever doing so in the future. However, Tracy Chevalier has a gift for awakening an interest in her readers that they never knew existed. This woman can make me care about anything.

There's just something about them. For a start, they're very hard to classify as a genre. On the face of it they should be historical novels, but they're much, much more character-driven than is usual. It's this that really makes her books stand out, The Last Runaway included. I don't know how she does it, but this is a masterpiece of characterisation.

Honor Bright is a wonderful character, despite her slightly twee name. She whines a little, but I think most of us would in her situation. It's rare to find such well-rounded and real characters in fiction and I finished the book feeling like I knew her personally. The other characters were slightly less complete, but yet it still felt like the effort had been made to help them jump from the page.

The ending is slightly more dramatic than I was expecting, I think. I took up an entire page of my review notebook writing about it, so it clearly made quite an impression. Unfortunately I can't quite decide that that impression actually is. I'm not sure it quite fit with the rest of the book or the characters, but my gut reaction was, for want of a better word, "OMG!" The shock really hit me hard so it can't have been that unrealistic or I'd have dismissed it.

There's one tiny thing that bothered me, and it is a small thing. Honor frequently refers to her time spent in England... but it sounds like no England I've ever heard of, even in the 1850s! I know the author has spent more than a decade in this country, but it still comes across as an American's idea of what the UK should be like. In addition, shouldn't her name be Honour, then?

I really did enjoy The Last Runaway, all the more so because I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I'd say the bottom line is that it doesn't matter if you think you have no interest in the subject matter - a truly great author can capture your attention regardless, and Tracy Chevalier does exactly that. An engrossing plot, wonderful characters and beautiful scenery - definitely one of the best books of the year.  

Thank you to Harper Collins for providing me with a copy of this book! Visit Tracy Chevalier's website here, or find her on Twitter.


  1. I loved this book too and like you, found a new interest in 19th century Ohio!
    I agree with you about England not being characterised right.

  2. I'm definitely looking forward to this book. I really enjoy Chevalier's writing!

  3. Shall have to look into this one, I have enjoyed her other books.


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