Thursday 7 November 2013
THE LAST RUNAWAY by Tracy Chevalier. A review by Adèle Geras
On March 29th of this year, Tracy Chevalier herself wrote on this blog, all about how she researches her novels. It was a fascinating piece and I said in the comments box at the time that I was longing to read the novel. Now I have read it, and I enjoyed it very much and would like to draw it to the attention of those people who love a good historical novel which manages to convey a whole lot of interesting information about a period (pre Civil War America) which we don't know terribly well, but who also want a rattling good story, which will involve them in the lives and loves of its protagonists.
Chevalier is drawn to the artistic or craft process. In her most famous book, The Girl with the Pearl Earring she goes into some detail in order to show us the way Vermeer mixed his paints; the way the paintings were set up and you closed the novel knowing a great deal about what it was like to be a painter at that time, as well, of course as what it was like to be his model. In perhaps my favourite of Chevalier's novels, The Lady and the Unicorn, the subject is the weaving of the famous set of tapestries presently in Musée de Cluny in Paris.
Here, our heroine, Honor Bright, leaves England to accompany her sister Grace to Ohio, which might just as well be on another planet. When Grace dies, Honor is left to make her own way in this strange new world, and the story of her adventures is full of romance, trials and tribulations, discoveries and awakenings. The book moves along swiftly. We see most things from Honor's point of view and there are her letters scattered through the text. She becomes aware of the existence of the Underground Railroad, a way of helping black slaves escape from their servitude in the South to safety in the North. The historical detail is very accurate and we hold our breath with Honor, who, towards the end of the book is hiding her part in the Railroad from her husband and family.
For me, though, the most beguiling aspect of the novel is the quilting. Reading about 'quilting frolics' and the different roles that quilts then played in a woman's life was enthralling. The different styles, the variations and nuances and colours and fabrics are cleverly mirrored in the patchwork way the book works: a bit of farm life, a bit of a letter, a memory of home, a whiff of a love story, a threat of great danger, and someone at the centre of it trying to make sense and harmony of her life as best she can. The characters in this novel, from milliners, to bounty hunters, to all the worthies of the Quaker community, and the (mostly) women who surround Honor most of the time, are all very well brought to life. The black characters too, strange to Honor, are given their fair weight in the story and one of the best moments is when Honor sees a quilt made by one of the Negro (sic) women and remarks on the difference between the two styles of quilting she has met in America, both of which are different from what she was used to in England.
I don't know whether Tracy Chevalier will take it as a compliment, but I intend it as one when I say that I think The Last Runaway is a perfect teenage novel, too. I think that anyone from about the age of 14 who likes an exciting, romantic, historically accurate novel will enjoy this book and I would urge fans of, for instance, Celia Rees's Witch Child, to try Tracy Chevalier. I am wondering where her curiosity will take her next.