Quaker Honor Bright sails to America with her sister Grace in the 1850s to escape the shame of being jilted. After a tumultuous journey, Grace dies of yellow fever soon after arriving in the US and Honor is left to travel alone to the home of her almost brother in law, Adam Cox. Everything is different in Ohio, from the sounds of the forest to the quilting techniques used by the women, and Honor struggles to find her place. Life is harsh and unsentimental and Honor has only tenuous links to the community around her. When she chances upon the underground railway, a system to help runaway slaves make it north to Canada, Honor has to decide whether she has the courage to stand up for her beliefs.
Reading a Chevalier novel is such a comfortable experience as you know before starting that the writing is going to be good and the story engaging. And The Last Runaway was no exception; within the first few places I had sunk into the story and it swept me away easily. Chevalier is very clever at immersing you in the historical setting and characters immediately - I didn't need much reading time or many pages to have a grasp of the main characters and this made the reading experience both easy and enjoyable.
I didn't know much about Quakers before reading The Last Runaway, although I knew they were heavily involved in anti-slavery movements. Honor wrestles a lot with her conscience as she feels duty bound to fight the injustice of slavery but she is also bound by her promise as a Quaker not to lie. There's also some interesting moments where Honor realises that it's one thing to have a belief, but quite another to put it into practise. She believes in equality of the races but still has moments like this;
"She hesitated for a moment when she realised she would be putting her mouth where the Negro's had been. But that thought was a mere flicker, and she lowered her mouth to the rock. The water tasted wonderful."
This added honesty to the book and made it believable for the 1850s setting. The two strands of the story concerning the runaway slaves and Honor running away from her past/future tied together well. Honor as a main character was likeable with just enough fire in her to keep the story moving well. Her indecision about what to do with her life was portrayed well and I liked the ambiguity in some of the secondary characters, such as the slave hunter Donovan. The whole thing felt very believable.
On the whole, a solidly enjoyable book. I didn't love it in the same way I loved Remarkable Creatures but I thoroughly enjoyed settling down with it each evening.
Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
First Published: 2013
Score: 4 out of 5