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I’ve never known where to draw the line between literary and popular fiction. Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel The Last Runaway (HarperCollins) has only confused me further. It’s a carefully researched and elegantly written piece of historical fiction but one of the story’s central relationships has a marked Mills & Boon quality about it…and I’m quite certain they’re not literary.
The story takes us back to the 1850s. Quaker Honor Bright has been jilted by the man she hoped to marry and has fled from England to America with her sister to make a new life. But Honor’s sister dies of yellow fever shortly after arriving in Ohio leaving her at a loss. Unable to face the rigours of the sea journey home she decides to continue on to her original destination, a small pioneer Quaker settlement near Oberlin.
America proves foreign and challenging. One of Honor’s first encounters on the road to her new home is with handsome but chilling slave hunter Donovan. Between them surges an instant and dangerous attraction, and in the months to follow Donovan is a recurring presence, watching Honor and brooding in between capturing his prey.
This is a dynamic familiar to any pulp romance fan and perhaps Chevalier felt it necessary to spice up Honor’s otherwise restrained life of quilting and silent worship although to me it seems superfluous.
After all, the novel has a fascinating historical context – the role of the Quakers in the Underground Railroad, a network helping southern slaves to freedom in the north. Honor grows aware of this and becomes involved in hiding and feeding runaways despite the risks.
The character of Honor is delicately fashioned through the narrative and the letters she writes home to friends and family. We see her fallibilities – in particular a tendency to be prideful of her Quaker talents for quilting, stillness and deep spiritual contemplation.
While her daily life can be mundane, Honor’s self-discovery is epic as she learns of her capacity to lust and lie, and struggles to balance her religious convictions with her obligations. Often with historical fiction the characters can betray modern sensibilities but Honor Bright feels as if she belongs solidly in her era.
I must say this is not the fastest moving story – there is a lot of detail about quilting and millinery for a start – nevertheless it is difficult to put down. Part of that is due to writing that is unfussy, vivid and honest. Plus the story is well told, powerful and engrossing. This is a book with a quiet dignity – rather like the character of Honor herself – and I enjoyed it rather more than the novel that put Chevalier on the literary map, Girl With A Pearl Earring.
Whatever label you choose to put on it (literary with popular leanings?), The Last Runaway is a pleasure to read.