The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

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The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Susmita Chatto
Reviewed by Susmita Chatto
Summary: A Quaker girl from Dorset seeks a new life in America, but her experiences with the Underground Railroad change her world in ways she never imagined.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Harper
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0007350353

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Quaker girl Honor Bright is seeking escape from a failed relationship. Leaving quiet Dorset for America, a developing country about which she knows little, she hopes that accompanying her sister to the US will mean a new start within the American Quaker community. But Honor soon discovers the differences between America and England – not just in terms of weather and landscape, but also in the American culture of slave keeping.

The only Tracy Chevalier novel I have read in the past is Girl with a Pearl Earring. This ranks as one of my favourite books ever - so with the cover endorsement declaring it was her best work since then, I was really looking forward to reading it.

The beginning did not disappoint. The extraordinary fluidity that made Girl with a Pearl Earring so enjoyable was present in abundance, and I felt every movement of the long and arduous trip across the Atlantic. Exciting incidents flow at the start of the book, and the overwhelming sense of change that Honor experiences is beautifully portrayed. Rapid bonding with Honor is a natural result and I felt huge sympathy for all the trials and burdens she had to endure. The background of being a stranger in a strange land is impossible to forget, as Chevalier fleshes out Honor’s feelings so extensively. It’s a relief when Honor makes friends, and Belle, the milliner, is an instantly warm and caring person who I was grateful to meet, not just for myself but on Honor’s behalf.

The book includes Honor’s letters to and from home; initially, these provide a useful insight into her new life and give a pleasant variation to the style. Unfortunately, midway through the book, variation becomes much needed. I hesitate to say it about a book that is beautifully written, but it was at the midway point that I began to feel that something more needed to happen. I felt I had learned a great deal about Quakers, quilts and countryside but otherwise found the storyline limited. I appreciate that Honor’s letters home would have included extensive details about the different landscape but it didn’t seem enough reason to include so much of it. Additionally, while the quilts and hats could be considered to show the passions and talents of Honor and Belle, as well as being symbolic in many ways, they were described so often and in so much detail, it felt like a distraction from a lack of plot.

Chevalier’s writing is subtle, and while I appreciated and enjoyed that to a degree, the book began to reflect Honor Bright herself - quiet, discreet and well meaning, but rather bland. The Underground Railroad is supposed to be the main story, I think, but as I read, I asked myself: is there such a thing as a controversial storyline blending in too seamlessly? Incidents that should have seemed dramatic somehow seemed less so when inserted into Honor’s normal everyday life. I am not suggesting that Chevalier should have created more drama artificially but it felt as though what was already there was not sufficiently explored.

The most striking characters were Belle the milliner, and her brother Donovan who, working as a slave catcher, was bound to have a lot of dramatic appeal. I would have liked to have known more about him and seen him in settings other than the limited ones shown. Honor, while starting off promisingly, became quite dull and while I could see the dilemmas she was facing, I began to lose interest in how she would resolve them. I tried re-reading certain sections but it didn’t make me feel any differently. My overall feeling was that the book was wrongly balanced; too much attention was paid to subtleties and too little to major sections of storyline. Ultimately, it was a disappointing end to a book that began very well.

If the idea of this book appeals then you might enjoy The Legacy of Eden by Nelle Davy. Younger readers interested in this subject will appreciate Oh, Freedom! by Francesco D'Adamo.

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Buy The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier at


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