One sentence plot
In 1850 a Quaker girl boards the boat from England to America, makes a life for herself, and gets involved in the Underground Railroad.
As soon as I finished The Last Runaway, in a Colombian mountain village besieged by riots (which has many disadvantages – but does allow lots of extra reading time!), I felt indignant on behalf of Tracy Chevalier. Why haven’t I seen this excellent book on any of the major book prize longlists?
The Last Runaway is an epic tale that examines the experience of early US settlers, the Quaker lifestyle, and the Quaker role in helping runaway slaves escape to Canada, all through the eyes of Honor Bright. Honor is a delight of a character – and her name is apt. Her outsider perspective and dancing, compelling voice sheds particular light on the people and culture she encounters, through third person narrative, guarded letters to her parents, and less guarded letters to her best friend in England. There are occasional letters from others too. Often I dislike this sort of narrative technique but it worked beautifully here and helped deliver a story of wide, sprawling, complex social mores and issues in a very personal way. And I learned a lot about the history of the Underground Railroad without really noticing.
Honor is no soppy, submissive victim, but nor is she the sort of bold adventurer the sister who should have accompanied her would have been. Similarly, the other characters Honor encounters in this brave new world are refreshingly believable – multidimensional and free of stereotypes, and busy with their own complicated lives.
Towards the end, I almost couldn’t read on – I cared so much about these characters and feared there could be no hope of a satisfactory conclusion. And then suddenly, along it came and it felt so right that I turned over the last page and reflected it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The verdict: 5/5 shoes