When reality and conscience collide

I somehow missed reading Tracy Chevalier’s international best-selling novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, which became an Oscar-nominated movie. Missing such books that everyone else is reading is one of the perils of being a book-review editor; if someone else is reviewing a book for me, I often feel that my reading the book would be redundant. I need to be pressing on with a different book for review. When Girl With a Pearl Earring was published, I was the book-page editor for a newspaper, in addition to my other, full-time responsibilities for that newspaper, so I felt that reading Chevalier’s book would be a luxury I could ill afford.

Now that I’ve read her engaging new novel, The Last Runaway, I intend to look for Girl With a Pearl Earring as an audio book (the easiest way for me to make up for lost time).

By Linda C. Brinson

THE LAST RUNAWAY. By Tracy Chevalier. Read by Kate Reading. Penguin Audio. 8CDs, 10 hours. Also available in hardcover from Dutton.

Almost from the moment in 1850 when Honor Bright sets a shaky foot on the deck of the ship that is to take her to America, she feels adrift, unmoored, disconnected.

Honor had thought her life’s course was set when she was engaged to marry a fellow Quaker, a young man whom she’d known since they were both children in their English village. But when he renounced both her and their religion to marry someone else, she impulsively accepted her sister’s invitation to accompany her to the United States. The sister, Grace was to marry a Quaker who had left England to help his brother forge a new life in Ohio, only to have his brother become seriously ill.

Honor is horribly seasick during the entire voyage to America. Then, before she and her sister reach their destination in Ohio, her sister dies of yellow fever. Honor finds herself an unwanted single woman dependent on the man who was to have been her brother-in-law, and on the widow of his brother.

As if her personal predicament weren’t bad enough, Honor finds the United States a strange, rough, largely unfriendly place. The culture is very different from that of her small village in England. Even the Quakers she interacts with are different. Honor begins to feel that her religious convictions are as disconnected and out of the place as everything else in her life.

In particular, she is distressed by the turmoil over slavery. Even though American Quakers, like their English counterparts, say that they believe all people are equal, they treat Negroes as inferiors. Ohio is a hotbed of the Underground Railroad, and Honor is appalled to find that her fellow Quakers there for the most part are not willing to “get involved” in helping runaway slaves heading for Canada.

Eventually, Honor’s efforts to survive and make a place for herself in this strange land directly conflict with her efforts to live up to her ideals and Quaker beliefs. On one level, she understands that it’s much easier for Quakers in England, where there are no slaves, to keep their principles pure. Despite that understanding, she cannot ignore what her heart tells her is right.

Tracy Chevalier does an excellent job of using the compelling personal story of Honor Bright to shed light on the larger story of the tensions and passions of the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Honor does find friends – in unlikely places – and even has conflicting romantic interests. The characters around her are well developed, as is the frontier society in Ohio.

Kate Reading brings the diverse characters to vivid life in the audio book version of this excellent novel.



One response to “When reality and conscience collide”

  1. Thanks for the review, Linda. You’ve made me want to read the book. Chevalier is one of my favorites. If you haven’t read her book Remarkable Creatures, I urge you to do so. It is outstanding.

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