Friday, January 4, 2013

book review: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The backstory: Tracy Chevalier is an author whose work I've enjoyed for more years than I've been blogging (my sixth blogoversary will be in March for those keeping track.) As I read all of her books pre-blogging, she's one of those rare favorite authors of mine whose work has only been reviewed once here (my review of Remarkable Creatures.)

The basics: The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, a young, British Quaker woman who sets out with her engaged sister to move to Ohio in 1950.

My thoughts: When I sat down to read The Last Runaway on a flight to Portland, Oregon in October, I had to take a deep breath. I admit: I fear my favorite authors will disappoint me. I fear I will somehow outgrow them or their worth will outgrow me. With The Last Runaway, I was also afraid because the topic of the Underground Railroad is fascinating to me. I didn't want my high hopes to hamper my enjoyment of the novel. Looking back, I'm grateful I started this novel at a time when I had hours to read it, both because I didn't want to put it down and because it wasn't as I expected it to be.

Honor's journey begins in England. She decides to accompany her sister to Ohio, where her sister is set to marry a young man from their town. The journey is brutal for Honor's seasickness, and she realizes she will never return; she believes she could not bear another trip. This decision combines sadness and acceptance, and it's a window into Honor's worldview, which is largely shaped by her Quaker faith. From the time the ship lands until Honor reaches Ohio, Chevalier does a beautiful job expressing how foreign the land is and how utterly alone Honor is. The loneliness is palpable. The book has already taken a deeply moving physical, emotional and geographical journey, yet there is not yet mention of the Underground Railroad. There are allusions to race relations in Ohio, but I found myself caring less about what I thought this book would be about and more about taking this journey with Honor. Once my mind shifted from expectation to reality, I enjoyed that journey (and Honor) even more.

Favorite passage:  "We got us a long way to go. It surely ain’t somethin’ you need to break your marriage over. That’s jes’ foolinshness. Any runaway would tell you that. All they want is the freedom to make the kind of life you got. You go and throw that away for their sake, you jes’ mockin’ their own dreams."

The verdict: The Last Runaway is classic Chevalier, and Honor Bright is a dynamic, fascinating character. While this novel will perhaps inevitably be billed as one about the Underground Railroad, it's more about Honor and her journeys: geographically, romantically and spiritually. Honor's role in the Underground Railroad is certainly compelling, but it's merely one part of her compelling journey and her contemplations of faith.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: January 8, 2013
Source: publisher via Elle magazine

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Last Runaway from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

15 comments:

  1. This certainly sounds interesting. I have read two books by Chevalier, of which I enjoyed Falling Angels best. I tried reading The Virgin Blue, but that one somehow didn't work for me, and I have Remarkable Creatures and Lady and the Unicorn (apologies for any spelling mistakes as I have Dutch editions of some of these - come to think of it, that might be why Virgin Blue doesn't work for me) on the TBR. I'm particularly excited about those latter two. And this one sounds really interesting as well. A book about a Quaker woman? Could be right up my alley.

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    1. Iris, Falling Angels is still my favorite Chevalier, but it's also the first one I read. Virgin Blue is the one I haven't read, but I did quite enjoy The Lady and the Unicorn and Remarkable Creatures. I think you'd love the gender politics in Creatures!

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  2. I'm glad this lived up to your high expectations! I'm also a fan of Chevalier, but I have quite a few back-list titles to go. So far, Remarkable Creatures is by far my favourite.

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    1. Sam, I quite enjoyed Remarkable Creatures. I liked this one a bit better than it, but my favorite remains Falling Angels.

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  3. Chevalier is very good. I've read a couple of her books and liked both of them. I am glad your expectations were met. I know exactly what you mean about a fave author letting you down. It's happened to me with Stephen King a few times.

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    1. I think it takes a certain kind of reader to feel guilty about a favorite author letting you down!

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  4. I also like Chevalier, and have read a few of her books. This one does indeed sound fascinating, and I think I would relish Honor's journey just as you did. Though it wasn't as you expected it to be, I am glad that you were pleased with it.

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  5. Love the sound of this one; yours is the first review I've read. I must try this one as I've had good luck with this author previously.

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    1. Diane, I'll look forward to your thoughts on it!

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  6. If you're interested in the underground railroad, Cincinnati has an amazing newer museum - the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, incredible.

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    1. Thanks for the tip, Jenny! I will definitely have to trek to Cincy some time to see it.

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  7. Sounds good. I just received a copy of this in audio for review. I haven't read any of Chevalier's previous work.

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    1. Leslie, I'll be curious how you find the audio!

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  8. I worry, too, about my favorite authors disappointing me. I'm dying to read Round House by Louise Erdrich (who I love), but I really did not like her last book, so I'm a little hesitant. I'm glad to hear The Last Runaway lived up to your expectations! It's already on my TBR, but maybe I'll move it up to the top.

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!