The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier

So far this year, only three novels have kept me up past bedtime, rapidly turning pages. The first was The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes; the second, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doherty, and the third was The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.

The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, a young, English Quaker. Honor sets out to sail from Bridport to America with her sister, Grace. Grace is engaged to be married to Adam, an older man who left England to help his family with the ‘dry goods’ store they’d established in Ohio. Honor is leaving England having been jilted by another Quaker who is now marrying outside of the religion.

The crossing is difficult for Honor:

She threw up when there was nothing left to bring up, her body like a magician managing to conjure something from nothing. She did not feel better after each bout. When they reached the Atlantic and the ship began its long roll up and down the swell of the waves, she continued to be sick. Only now Grace was ill too, as well as many other passengers, though only for a time, until they got used to the new rhythm of the boat. Honor never got used to it; the nausea did not leave her for the whole month-long voyage.

Within days of their arrival though it is Grace who falls ill. She contracts yellow fever and dies. Honor feels she can do nothing else but continue to their final destination and become part of the Quaker settlement in Freemont.

The Last Runaway PB

Of course, it’s not going to be that simple. On the road to Wellington, the wagon Honor is riding on is pulled over by a man named Donovan. Donovan’s a slave catcher and a real charmer:

‘You from England?’ the man said
        Honor nodded’
       ‘Say something, then. I always liked the accent.’
       When Honor hesitated, the man said, ‘Go on, say something. What, you too proud to talk to me? Say “How do you do, Donovan.”’
        Rather than remain silent and risk his insistence turning to anger, Honor looked into his amused eyes and said, ‘How does thee, Mr Donovan?’
        Donovan snorted. ‘How does I? I does just fine, thankee. Nobody’s called me Mr Donovan in years. You Quakers make me laugh. ‘What’s your name, girl?’
        ‘Honor Bright.’
        ‘You gonna live up to your name, Honor Bright?’

When Honor arrives in Wellington, she stays with Belle Mills for a few days. While she’s there, she realises that Belle is hiding runaway slaves. As Quakers believe that everyone is equal, it’s not long before Honor has her own part to play.

The Last Runaway looks at both the ‘Underground Railroad’, a network of people who helped runaway slaves, and the Quakers and their lifestyle. Chevalier is particularly interested in the way Quakers worship in silence and this becomes a key theme in the book.

What I enjoyed most about the book was Honor’s progression from a quite sheltered, naïve young woman to one who was certain about the direction she wanted her life to take. I loved the two female characters who supported her too – Belle Mills and Mrs Reed, a free black woman. I highly recommend it.

And if I’m not enough to convince you, maybe Tracy Chevalier herself is; here’s an essay she wrote about her interest in silence and how it became a key theme in the novel.

On Silence
by Tracy Chevalier

One day several summers ago I was on the street in mid-Manhattan, trying to make a phone call. All around me people were chatting on their mobiles, insouciant, while I couldn’t hear a damned thing. I know that some of the upper register of my hearing has started to go (age, poor Q-tip use, a particularly loud Echo and the Bunnymen concert), but it was more than that. I began to listen. My God, it was noisy. The cars, the people, the planes. When did it start getting so loud? The more I heard, the more astonished I was that people weren’t covering their ears and complaining.

That moment was the beginning of my interest in the value of silence. My immediate response was a writerly one: I read books on the subject, most notably Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, and Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence by Anne LeClaire. LeClaire took the extreme step of choosing not to speak every Monday, a strategy that brought her inner peace but external strife, as her decision offended family and friends who found her silence to be a judgement on their words. It turns out silence is a powerful tool that can scare people. Think of the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day, or the minute’s silence at a football game as a mark of respect for someone who has died. There is always some idiot who can’t cope with the power that arises from the collective silence, and shouts or whistles to break it.

My craving for silence on that New York street led me back to Quaker Meeting, possibly the quietest place in today’s society outside of a meditation class. When I was growing up in Washington, DC, my sister and brother and I went to Catoctin Quaker Camp every summer for seven years. There, apart from the usual camp things like hiking and swimming and roasting marshmallows, every morning we sat in silence for 15 minutes out in the woods. I loved it; it felt companionable being quiet with other people.

It’s remarkable to think of a group of children sitting silent, but it seemed natural then. Indeed, I occasionally attend Hampstead Meeting, where children come in for the last 10 minutes of the hour-long gathering, and have seen babies and toddlers remain quiet and calm for that time.

Since their establishment in the mid-17th century, Quakers – or the Society of Friends, as they are formally known – have worshipped in collective silence, without the intervention of priest or minister, listening in the stillness for something non-verbal and timeless tucked deep inside. Some call it God, or the Spirit, or the Inner Light, or something less overtly religious. By stripping away noise, it is easier to let go of the everyday, settle one’s thoughts, and listen. Quaker Meeting is much like meditation, except done together rather than alone. The communal nature of the experience is essential, for being with others makes the silence more valuable. Sometimes at Meeting when I’m restless, I sense the stillness of those around me and it reminds me of what I’m doing, so that I sit still and try again.

I had been to Meeting only a handful of times since my teenage years, but once I began craving silence, I started to go a little more often. And it was at a Quaker Meeting in Bethesda, Maryland in 2009 that I had the idea for my current novel, The Last Runaway.

A few days before, I had been visiting Oberlin College in Ohio, where I had done a BA in English many years before, and watched the novelist Toni Morrison unveil a bench as part of her Bench by the Road project. The Nobel Laureate had previously remarked that there were no monuments to slavery in America, “not even a bench by the road.” The challenge was taken up, and now commemorative benches are being set at places of historical significance to African Americans.

Oberlin has its Bench by the Road because, from its founding in 1834, it has been a radical place, both town and college. The college admitted women and African Americans as students from the start – the first US college to do so. And the town was a major stop on the “Underground Railroad” – a network of abolitionists who hid slaves in safe houses and helped them escape to freedom in Canada.

As I sat in Bethesda Meeting, my Oberlin visit got me thinking about how active Quakers were in the abolitionist movement to get rid of slavery in the US, and how many of them worked on the Underground Railroad. Then it occurred to me that I could write about a Quaker doing just that. Moreover, my heroine would value silence, not just in Meeting, but at all times. She would be an antidote to this noisy age.

When writing the first draft of The Last Runaway, I tried to have Honor Bright be as quiet as possible. Every time she was required to speak, I made her replies short, and cut them out whenever I could. However, it became clear just how hard it is to keep characters quiet – and honest. (Quakers are not meant to lie, but if you get rid of lies and omissions in novels, you have no drama.) Besides, few Quakers don’t speak at all – though I have noticed that, in general, the Quakers I know are more thoughtful in their speech, pausing to consider their responses more than others do. Eventually I allowed Honor to open her mouth more (and to lie when she must), but she is still pretty quiet.

I found too that it is not easy to describe silence. By its nature it is a non- verbal state. When I sit in Meeting, I am constantly chasing away thoughts, which are made up of words. Ideally, when I manage to hold thoughts at bay, I enter into a state that I cannot describe. The moment words come back into it, the state vanishes.

This is true as well when writing about silence. It is so difficult to express that I grab at metaphors, or phrases Quakers have developed over the centuries to explain what they are seeking: the silence “gathering and thickening”, members of the Meeting “sinking down”, “waiting in expectation” for the “Inner Light” or the “Inner Spirit”. I have Honor Bright say all of these things, but I’m not sure I have really got it.

The best I can hope is that my imprecise attempt to describe silence will pique readers’ curiosity into seeking it out for themselves. It is worth quieting the mind for. 

If all that’s whetted your appetite, here’s an extract from the novel. Honor has arrived in America and travelled towards the home of her would-be brother-in-law. She spends a few days with Belle in her milliner’s shop, a character and place that becomes important to Honor.

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Thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy and additional material.

0 thoughts on “The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier

  1. Thank you for including that essay, it was so interesting to read alongside your thoughts. I love Tracy Chevalier, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by her that has let me down. I can’t wait to get to it.

  2. She is always a good read, I loved Remarkable Creatures and this sounds just as good. Silence is indeed an interesting subject, indulging it heightens other powers of observation.

  3. Sounds like a book I’d love. I don’t think Quaker women are given enough time in literature and taking into account Elizabeth Cady Staton, they should! Thanks for the review.