Sunday, September 09, 2018

"The Last Runaway"

Tracy Chevalier's book The Last Runaway takes place in a very small Quaker settlement near Oberlin, Ohio, shortly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, but before the Civil War. I enjoyed the historic background of the novel very much, particularly the principal theme of the Quaker community and its struggle with moral decisions about helping the escaping slaves who were passing through their community via the Underground Railway.

I think I enjoyed the book more because I was reading it while driving quite near the area where the main actions took place: we drove the Ohio Turnpike on our way home from our trip last week. I thought about the frontier farmers who were just clearing the area to enable the vast cornfields I saw on either side of the wide, wide road at a speed that they couldn't have imagined at all.

Although I found the characters somewhat stereotyped, the book held my attention, and I appreciated the inclusion of both black and white characters. Honor Bright, the central character, is a committed Quaker who arrives in Ohio from her native England. She accompanies her sister Grace, who is about to marry a man in the small community near Oberlin; unfortunately Grace dies of yellow fever, and Honor must continue alone.

As she struggles to adapt to her new land, Honor has a number of doubts about the moral fibre of the American Quakers she meets. Honor has an unwavering commitment to treating blacks as fully equal humans whose struggle for freedom must be aided at all cost. She finds that the Americans have made compromises to protect themselves from the vicious laws of the land, particularly the Fugitive Slave Act that heavily penalized anyone who refused to help capture an escaped slave. Besides the description of the Quakers' views on slavery and equality of all humans, Chevalier offers a fascinating depiction of Honor's spirituality and Quaker beliefs.

As always, I was particularly interested in descriptions of food, kitchens, and in this book the detail about growing, canning, and preserving food on a small, nearly self-sufficient frontier farm. Some of the descriptions are told in Honor's letters home to England, which make up an interesting part of the narrative. For example, when her only option is living at the home of Adam (whom Grace was to marry), and Adam's late brother's wife Abigail, she found a very disorganized kitchen, which she compared to that of her family in England:
"The kitchen is not so different in principle from that on East Street: there is a hearth, a range, a long table and chairs, a sideboard for crockery and pots, a larder— called a pantry here— for storage. Yet the feeling is entirely different from the East Street kitchen. Partly it is that Abigail is not so well organised as thee, Mother. She does not seem to have 'a place for everything, and everything in its place,' as thee taught me. She stacks wood haphazardly so that it does not dry out, leaves the broom blocking the slops bucket rather than out of the way in the corner, doesn’t wipe up crumbs and so attracts mice, leaves dishes in a jumble on the sideboard rather than neatly stacked. Then too, the range and fireplace take wood instead of coal, so the kitchen smells of wood smoke rather than the deeper earthiness of burning coal. We don’t have to clean up coal dust, but the wood ash can be just as trying, especially when Abigail is clumsy." (p. 75). 
She also described the differences in the crops grown in the vegetable gardens:
"In the garden we are growing many of the vegetables one would find in thy garden, Mother: potatoes, beans, carrots, lettuces, tomatoes. But they are different from what I am used to, even when the varieties are meant to be the same. The potatoes are larger, with more eyes. The carrots are thinner and more tapered— though as tasty. The beans have a smoother skin, and the lettuce leaves grow much faster. Much of the garden is given over to corn." (p. 110). 
At a quilting party, called a "frolic," all the women in the community worked together. At the end, there was a dinner for the women as well as the men who came in from their work, and Honor wrote to her closest English friend:
"As well as ham, there was roast beef, mashed potatoes, baked sweet potatoes— which have orange flesh and taste more like squash than potato— green beans (which they call ‘string’ beans), fresh corn as well as corn bread, a wide variety of preserves, and many pies, mostly cherry, as they were recently in season. I was most pleased by a bowl of gooseberries, which I had not thought were grown in America. Their simple, fragrant taste reminded me of our garden at home in the summer sun." (p. 128).
About the preparation of produce for winter, Honor wrote:
"If thee could see the pantry here, thee would be amazed at the rows and rows of jars filled with all the food from the garden: beans and peas and cucumbers and tomatoes and squash. The cellar is full of potatoes and turnips and carrots and beets, and apples and pears. The cherries and plums are in syrup or dried. We are now making apple sauce, apple butter, and drying apple rings as well." (p. 192). 
Honor also saw another kitchen at the home of Mrs. Reed, a free black woman who lived in town:
"This kitchen was dark and cluttered, full of the smell of hot oil and spices and the suggestion that something was just about to catch at the bottom of the pot. The range was old and smoky, its surface spattered with oil and the remnants of past stews. The shelves on either side of the range were full of open jars of pepper and salt and cayenne, scattered bay leaves and sprigs of rosemary, bowls of dried leaves and twigs Honor did not recognize, sacks of cornmeal and flour, and bottles full of dark sauces dripping down the sides. Overhead hung a string of dried chili peppers that could not have come from Ohio." (pp. 239-240). 
Domestic details in The Last Runaway are definitely an effective way to tell Honor's story. Her efforts to help the escaping slaves mainly involve providing food to keep them going as they head first for Oberlin, and then for Sandusky where they can get a boat to Canada. Mrs. Reed explained how to provide for the runaways as they went past the farm. (Note that Mrs. Reed's dialect is sharply distinguished in the text, while the American white southerners seem to speak standard English. I think this is a flaw in the style of the novel.) Said Mrs. Reed:
“Get you a crate and put it upside down behind your henhouse. Put a rock on it to weight it down so animals can’t get at it. Put you some victuals there— anything you got. Bread’s best, and dried meat. Apples when they come in. Y’all make peach leather?... That kind o’ thing." (p. 185). 
It is for these acts of kindness and helpfulness that Honor conflicts strongly with her Quaker husband and his family.

From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
"Appliqued and pieced quilt with star of Bethlehem," 1850.
Another compromise also worries Honor: when she marries, her new family does not share her very high standard of making quilts. Sewing is the most absorbing activity that she engages in, and the descriptions in the book are very detailed. Honor prefers patchwork quilting, making elaborate squares or large patterns from small pieces of cloth with intricate work. The Ohio Quakers use the easier technique appliqué instead -- the quilt I pictured uses Honor's favorite motif, the Star of Bethlehem.

Chevalier did provide me with an explanation of something that had always puzzled me. Here it is:
"They say here that the corn should be ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’. Ours is much higher than my knee, and I thought it must be doing exceptionally well, until I was told that it meant one’s knee when mounted on a horse." (p. 111). 
I agree with Carol Birch who reviewed the book in The Guardian in 2013 when it was published: "The Last Runaway is an entertaining read. The important themes of the book – slavery and the resistance movement – are, in spite of some moving encounters, unfortunately far less developed than the Quakers and quilting angle. As a period piece on Ohio life in the 1850s it is admirable, but Tracy Chevalier has written far better books than this." (source)


JoAnn said...

Excellent review, Mae. I listened to this several years ago and the audio production definitely added to my enjoyment. Agree with your assessment... this is a good book, but not her best.

Here's my post if you're interested:

Mae Travels said...

@JoAnn — thanks for your comment. I enjoyed your post about the book: amazing how many themes it includes, so that two people can see it rather differently. Your interest in quilting, you said, made you like the book. Though I know nothing at all about quilting or quilts, I was quite taken with the descriptions of Honor’s pride in her sewing and also the explanations of what she was doing. I had to look up the pattern that was often mentioned, and I think the image I found was similar to the quilts described in the book, which included red on white designs.

best... mae at

Judith said...

Hi Mae,
I've very much enjoyed visiting your blogs. I don't know this novel by Chevalier. I'd be interested to read it.

I think that any novelist who writes a book set in this time period is doomed to be criticized. The expectations for getting the "history" correct--that is, in terms of our own modern political correctness--is a bar set very high, too high, I think. Contemporary readers have a very hard time getting their heads around the fact that people conceived of status in society, race, and politics very, very differently than we do.

I'm sure that critics' opinion of this book as one of Chevalier's lesser novels is undoubtedly correct, based on loads of other factors, but I have observed the struggles American novelists have with this period.

I'm looking forward to visiting again!

Mae Travels said...

@Judith -- Your point about political correctness making it hard to write a pre-Civil-War novel is a good one, but in fact, I don't think Chevalier has been criticized for her efforts to see the issues as the 19th century people saw them. I have no criticism of her depiction of their views and their struggles. The point about distinguishing the black woman's speech and not that of white southerners is very much not a point about the vies of 19th century writers. In the letters from the character Honor, there are no such quotes -- the point is entirely about Chevalier's choices as a 20th century novelist, not about reproducing 19th century views. Mark Twain, in the introduction to Huckleberry Finn, was very aware of this when he wrote about that era. (That was in 1885, but he was very much personally aware of the views of Americans in the 1850s.)

As you say, the critics views of the weaknesses of the book are very much due to other factors.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I enjoyed The Girl with the Pearl Earrings so I will add this to my list as well.

heather said...

I liked this one too. I agree that part of the enjoyment is that I live in Northern Ohio although not exactly in the area described.

Hardlyagoddess said...

This looks interesting- I would like to read more about Quaker life - I like this author too, so may add to my TBR- nice review of the food coverage- so fun!