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Review: The Last Runaway by Tracey Chevalier

First person Quaker 1850s pioneer America

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

The Last Runaway


Tracy Chevalier

I read Tracey Chevalier’s ‘At the Edge of the Orchard’ a few years ago, and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try another one by this author. It was a different feel, but very satisfying.

Honor Bright is a quiet, self-possessed young Quaker from England, who finds herself alone and friendless in the Ohio prairies of 1850. She tries to fit into the American Quaker community, but keeps bumping up against the differences: the vast space, the ruggedness of homesteading life, the lack of education, the unspoken acceptance of American slavery (although the Quaker community were ‘against’ slavery, there were degrees of accommodation).

Quilting is what Honor does best, and how she finds her place – in her new American family, and with outspoken Belle, and eventually as a connection to the runaway slave underground community. I love that Chevalier uses the ‘quilt’ as the connecting thread through the narrative. I was fascinated by the detailed descriptions of quilt-making.

I also learned a lot about Quaker life at that time, and about the tensions facing American society over slavery, which of course erupted into a civil war a decade later. It wasn’t as clear-cut as we would think, with our benefit of hindsight and our distance from the harsh realities of settler life.

Honor wrote a lot of letters back to her best friend in England, and I enjoyed the depth of analysis provided by them. The storyline plays out in the limited borders of Honor’s life – the tiny community in Ohio – and feels as restricted as her existence. Nonetheless, Honor faces personal dilemmas as she tries to live out her Quaker ethics by helping a runaway slave, and comes into conflict to different degrees with her family, and with the so-nasty-you-can’t-help-loving-him slavecatcher.

I recommend this book if you want to learn more about Quakers, the last days of slavery in America, quilting, or just want a warm story to wrap around yourself for hours of quiet delight.

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