The Last Runaway
Tracy Chevalier, 2013
Penguin Group USA
In New York Times bestselling author Tracy Chevalier’s newest historical saga, she introduces Honor Bright, a modest English Quaker who moves to Ohio in 1850, only to find herself alienated and alone in a strange land. Sick from the moment she leaves England, and fleeing personal disappointment, she is forced by family tragedy to rely on strangers in a harsh, unfamiliar landscape.
Nineteenth-century America is practical, precarious, and unsentimental, and scarred by the continuing injustice of slavery. In her new home Honor discovers that principles count for little, even within a religious community meant to be committed to human equality.
However, drawn into the clandestine activities of the Underground Railroad, a network helping runaway slaves escape to freedom, Honor befriends two surprising women who embody the remarkable power of defiance. Eventually she must decide if she too can act on what she believes in, whatever the personal costs.
A powerful journey brimming with color and drama, The Last Runaway is Tracy Chevalier’s vivid engagement with an iconic part of American history. (From the publisher.)
About the Author
• Birth—October 19, 1962
• Where—Washington, D.C., USA
• Education—B.A., Oberlin College (USA); M.A., University of
East Anglia (UK)
• Currently—lives in London, UK
Raised in Washington D.C., Tracy Chevalier moved to England in 1984 after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio. Initially intending to attend one semester abroad, she studied for a semester and never returned. After working as a literary editor for several years, Chevalier chose to pursue her own writing career and in 1994, she graduated with a degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
The Virgin Blue (her first novel), was chosen by W. H. Smith for its Fresh Talent promotion in 1997. She lives in London with her husband and son and hopes to see all of Vermeer's thirty-five known paintings in her lifetime (thus far, she's seen twenty-eight of them). Tracy Chevalier first gained attention by imagining the answer to one of art history's small but intriguing questions: Who is the subject of Johannes Vermeer's painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring"?
It was a bold move on Chevalier's part to build a story around the somewhat mysterious 17th-century Dutch painter and his unassuming but luminous subject; but the author's purist approach helped set the tone. In an interview with her college's alumni magazine, she commented:
I decided early on that I wanted [Girl] to be a simple story, simply told, and to imitate with words what Vermeer was doing with paint. That may sound unbelievably pretentious, but I didn't mean it as "I can do Vermeer in words." I wanted to write it in a way that Vermeer would have painted: very simple lines, simple compositions, not a lot of clutter, and not a lot of superfluous characters.
Chevalier achieved her objective expertly, helped by the fact that she employed the famous Girl as narrator of the story. Sixteen-year-old Griet becomes a maid in Vermeer's tumultuous household, developing an apprentice relationship with the painter while drawing attention from other men and jealousy from women. Praise for the novel poured in: "Chevalier's exploration into the soul of this complex but naïve young woman is moving, and her depiction of 17th-century Delft is marvelously evocative," wrote the New York Times Book Review. The Wall Street Journal called it "vibrant and sumptuous."
Girl with a Pearl Earring was not Chevalier's first exploration of the past. In The Virgin Blue, her U.K.-published first novel (U.S. edition, 2003), her modern-day character Ella Turner goes back to 16th-century France in order to revisit her family history. As a result, she finds parallels between herself and a troubled ancestor — a woman whose fate had been unknown until Ella discovers it.
With 2001's Falling Angels, Chevalier—a former reference book editor who began her fiction career by enrolling in the graduate writing program at University of East Anglia — continued to tell stories of women in the past. But she has been open about the fact that compared to writing Girl with a Pearl Earring, the "nightmare" creating of her third novel was difficult and fraught with complications, even tears. The pressure of her previous success, coupled with a first draft that wasn't working out, made Chevalier want to abandon the effort altogether. Then, reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible led Chevalier to change her approach. "[Kingsolver] did such a fantastic job using different voices and I thought, with Falling Angels, I've told it in the wrong way," Chevalier told Bookpage magazine. "I wanted it to have lots of perspective."
With that, Chevalier began a rewrite of her tale about two families in the first decade of 20th-century London. With more than ten narrators (some more prominent than others), Falling Angels has perspective in spades and lots to maintain interest over its relatively brief span: a marriage in trouble, a girlhood friendship born at Highgate Cemetery, a woman's introduction to the suffragette movement. A spirited, fast-paced story, Falling Angels again earned critical praise. "This moving, bittersweet book flaunts Chevalier's gift for creating complex characters and an engaging plot," Book magazine concluded.
Chevalier continues to pursue her fascination with art and history in her fourth novel, on which she is currently at work. According to Oberlin Alumni Magazine, she is basing the book on the "Lady and the Unicorn" medieval tapestries that hang in Paris's Cluny Museum.
From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:
• Chevalier's interest in Vermeer extends beyond a fascination with one painting. "I have always loved Vermeer's paintings," Chevalier writes on her Web site. "One of my life goals is to view all thirty-five of them in the flesh. I've seen all but one — ‘Young Girl Reading a Letter' — which hangs in Dresden. There is so much mystery in each painting, in the women he depicts, so many stories suggested but not told. I wanted to tell one of them."
• Chevalier moved from the States to London in 1984. "I intended to stay six months," she writes. "I'm still here." She lives near Highgate Cemetery with her husband and son.
• The film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring was released 2003 with Scarlett Johansson in the role of Griet and Colin Firth playing Vermeer.
• When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is her response:
It's impossible to list just one! I would say more generally— books that I read when I was a girl, that showed me how different worlds can be brought to life for a reader. My aunt likes to quote that when I was young I once said I was never alone when I had a book to read. (I don't remember saying that, but my aunt isn't prone to lying.) Those companions would be books like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series; Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle; The Egypt Game by Zylpha Keatley Snyder; "The Dark Is Rising" series by Susan Cooper; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken plus subsequent books in that series; and of course The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
• Other favorite books include: Pride and Prejudice (Austen), The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger), Alias Grace (Atwood), and Song of Solomon (Morrison). (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
Chevalier’s (Girl with a Pearl Earring) haunting seventh novel delves into the difference between a theory of belief and its practice. When young Quaker Honor Bright’s fiance breaks off the relationship to marry outside the faith, Honor goes to America in 1850 with her sister, Grace. Grace is engaged to marry Adam Cox, a young man from their hometown who followed his brother to Faithwell, Ohio. Unfortunately, Grace dies en route, and Honor arrives in Ohio to find Adam sharing a house with Abigail, his sister-in-law, made a widow by the death of Adam’s brother. Honor moves into the house, but feels tense and unwelcome. In Belle Mills, a milliner who appreciates Honor’s sewing skills, Honor finds a friend and ally. Honor also draws the attention of Belle’s brother, Donovan, a slave hunter, and Jack Haymaker, a local farmer, a man “like a pulled muscle that Honor sensed every time she moved.” They marry and Honor, drawn by her sympathies into helping the Underground Railroad, is forced to choose between living her beliefs and merely speaking them. The birth of her own child raises the stakes, and she takes a unique stand in her untenable situation. Honor’s aching loneliness, overwhelming kindness, and stubborn convictions are beautifully rendered, as are the complexities of all the supporting characters and the vastness of the harsh landscape. Honor’s quiet determination provides a stark contrast to the roiling emotions of the slave issue, the abolitionist fight, and the often personal consequences. Chevalier’s thought-provoking, lyrical novel doesn’t allow any of her characters an easy way out.
For the first time ever, the American-born, London-based Chevalier is using America as a backdrop. Leaving home after suffering a disappointment, English Quaker Honor Bright ends up in 1850 Ohio, where she finds folks—even Quakers—pragmatically unprincipled and becomes involved in the Underground Railroad.
1. "We're all from somewhere else. That's how Ohio is." —Belle Mills
Through Honor's own journey, the existence of the Underground Railroad and the runaways themselves, there is a constant sense of movement in this novel, suggesting home is not a permanent place and can be made and remade. Is Belle right that this is particular to Ohio or do you think this is a characteristic of America in general?
2. Silence in this novel seems to play different roles: communal religious silence at Meeting, individual reflection to which Honor attributes her own fine sewing, and there is also the Quaker community's more unsettling silence towards slavery.
Discuss the importance of its different roles in the novel. Does the Quaker community believe its own survival is dependent on staying quiet about slavery?
3. What are Honor's true feelings towards Donovan, and how do they change? Do you think her relationship with Donovan reveals aspects of her character that we don't see in her relationships with others?
4. When Belle Mills comes to visit Honor while she is sick at the Haymakers' farm, seeing her is, for Honor, like "discovering a sweet plum among a bowl full of unripe fruit." How important are the relationships Honor has with Belle Mills and Mrs. Reed? Is it significant that her strongest female relationships in Ohio lie outside the Quaker community? Would you say that female relationships would have been even more critical to survival in the 19th century than they are today?
5. Why do you think Honor feels she cannot go back to England? Do you think the horror of the journey plays a greater part than the heartbreak she ran away from?
6. When Honor comes across the applique patterns that are so common to quilting in Ohio, she finds them "cheerful" but "unsophisticated" when set against the accuracy and complexity of the patchwork quilts she is used to back home. Can this comparison have significance when considering the differences between England and the US at that time?
7. "As she peered into the dim woods, a raccoon scurried away, its humped back swaying back and forth...Grace would have loved to see a raccoon, Honor thought."
Honor spends much ofthe book learning how to cope with loss - of her intended husband, her sister, her homeland. Many of the other characters have their own losses to contend with. What does Honor learn from Belle, from Mrs. Reed, from Jack about dealing with loss?
8. How did The Last Runaway make you feel after reading it? Is this a hopeful story, both in the context of Honor's path and the path that America takes?
(Questions from author's website.)
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