Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Last Runaway.
An immigrant tale of two sisters who cross the ocean in the 1850s to make a new life, Chevalier’s The Last Runaway is rich in period detail and is gorgeously told. Based on
the underground railroad of Ohio, a crucial state in the saga, the author adds idiosyncratic color to her tale as her heroine Honor Bright travels from Bridport, Devon, to the small village of Faithwell, Ohio. Considered a “free state,” Ohio was still dangerous to a slave, yet an estimated forty thousand runaways were able to escape to Canadian freedom through Ohio, making use of a secret and successful network of safe-houses and “depots” that waited for those who were fortunate enough to make it across the Ohio River.
Chevalier’s ability to create Honor’s compelling voice promises to come to fruition in her first encounter with handsome Donovan, a local negro hunter. Although Donovan paws through her trunk and looks at her with “light in his eyes,” Honor’s innate attraction to him has her stomach twisting with a mixture of fear and excitement. For the first time, she’s conscious of being in a place she would never have expected to consider home.
While Honor promises her imperious mother-in-law, Judith Haymaker, to respect her demands not to get involved in helping runaways
(because “it is illegal, dangerous and the Haymakers cannot tolerate it any longer”), she
is still shocked and exalted to find a black man hiding in the woodpile owned by kindly Belle, her new, loyal milliner friend.
Honor’s series of contretemps lead to a focus on the dangers slaves faced in their journey north and on Honor’s ramshackle life in this new country, where the quality of sunlight is so different--yellow and fiercer--and the seasons are so much harsher. In this landscape, Honor is an outsider. A girl damaged
by the inconsistency of support from those closest to her, Honor’s journey reflects her ability to hold dear to her Quaker principles born of a lifetime of sitting in silent expectation: “that all people are equal in God’s eyes, and so should not be enslaved to one another.”
Writing in a robust, bracing fashion and telling her story from Honor’s perspective, Chevalier shows how Honor is placed suddenly in the hands of strangers who dictate what she eats and what she sews. As her eyes constantly “prick with tears,” Honor’s decision to unmoor herself from Dorset and travel alone to a strange place
contribute to this testing of her mettle. Incorporating a great ear for period dialog and hard-boiled sense of realism, Chevalier periodically intersects each chapter with Honor’s letters home to her family, a technique that plays well to Honor’s feelings towards the frontier nature of her existence and her new family in the form of Adam Cox and his sister, Abigail, and later with husband Jack Haymaker, a fellow Quaker. In this harsh land of dry rutted mud and dense woodland, Honor clashes with Jack after he demonstrates how easy it is to justify stepping back from his principles and do nothing.
Honor possesses a good dose of English common sense combined with tenacity and guts. She’s secretly appalled at the notion that she, too, is expected to retreat from the Haymaker family history, a history shrouded in secrets and shame. When Honor helps a runaway slave going south to get her children, her actions set her on a path
that will force her to endure the spiteful condemnation of those around her. This only
heightens her sense of wanting to be rooted-down but of being “in the wrong country.” Jack is part of the American chaos that “pulls at” Honor,
yet from the outset, marriage to Jack is the only way Honor can make a place for herself: “otherwise I am afloat with no idea how to make land again.”
Chevalier’s prose dramatizes Honor’s plight while emphasizing her already unique role in the Underground Railroad Movement, where frightened, hungry slaves have little choice but to seek help from people like Honor. From the simple, fragrant taste of gooseberries that remind Honor of her garden back at home to the unique flavor of corn-baked sweet potatoes, we see Honor’s quick mind at work as she links metaphorical hands with the runaways in a pledge of hope, a volatile and emotional change of light that expertly ties into her moral predicament and her desperate need to belong.