The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

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Tracy Chevalier (1962- ) is best known for her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) set in C17th Holland. I listened to it some time ago and enjoyed it, but I haven’t seen the 2003 movie. The Last Runaway (2013) is her seventh (of eight) and is set in C19th America.

The plot is basically: Honor Bright, a Quaker woman in England is jilted by her fiancée and so decides to accompany her sister to America where the sister is to marry a former fellow townsman and Quaker who has established a business in a newly settled part of Ohio. Honor falls in with Belle, a milliner and an alcoholic, who is part of the Underground Railroad, sheltering and assisting the passage of runaway slaves from the South making their way to Canada. The biggest threat to the runaways is recapture by bounty hunters, of whom Belle’s brother Donovan is the most prominent.

After working for a while in the shop of her prospective brother in law, Honor marries into the Haymaker family, Quaker farmers in a nearby parish. The Quakers are anti-slavery but the Haymakers are frightened to assist runaways because they can be heavily fined under Federal law. Honor defies them and we go on from there.

I am interested that the date is around 1850 and Ohio is only partially cleared for farming, less so maybe than Victoria and NSW at the same time. I was thinking that settlement would have begun a couple of centuries earlier but in fact first settlement was at Marietta in the familiar year of 1788, with, according to Wikipedia, battles against the ‘Indians’ – who are not mentioned at all in this novel – throughout the 1790s.

Honor only slowly realises the scale of Belle’s involvement in the movement of runaways. After Belle shoots a snake in the back yard …

Honor thought about the man hiding there, almost three days now cramped in the heat and dark, and hearing the gunshot. She wondered how Belle came to be hiding him. When her ears had stopped ringing she said, ‘Thee mentioned that Kentucky is a slave state. Did thy family own slaves?’ It was the most direct question she had dared to ask.

Belle regarded her with yellowed eyes, leaning against the porch railing and still holding the shotgun, her dress hanging off her. It occurred to Honor that the milliner must have an underlying illness to make her so thin and discoloured. ‘Our family was too poor to own slaves. That’s why Donovan does what he does. Poor white people hate Negroes more’n anyone.’

Chevalier tries very hard to be colour-blind in a book about racial prejudice and has Honor chase after and attempt to befriend an older Black woman, Mrs Reed.

‘May I ask thee a question?’ Honor ventured.

Mrs Reed frowned. ‘What … ma’am.’ Honor did not wear a wedding band, as Friends did not need such a reminder of their commitment; yet somehow Mrs Reed knew she was married.

Please call me Honor. We do not use “ma’am” – or “miss”.

‘All right. Honor. What you want to know?’

‘What does thee think of colonisation?’

Mrs Reed let her mouth hang open for a moment. ‘What does I think of colonisation? She repeated.

Honor said nothing. Already she regretted asking the question.

Mrs Reed snorted. ‘You an abolitionist? Lots of Quakers is.’ She glanced around the empty shop and seemed to reach a decision. ‘Abolitionists got lots o’ theories, but I’m living with realities. Why would I want to go to Africa? I was born in Virginia. So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents. I’m American. I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen. If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well, I’m here. This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

I listen to lots of audio books but the reason I chose to discuss this one is because I am interested in novels about racism in the US and the light it throws on racism here; and more precisely, because of the difficulty I have with stories about honourable White people, doing the ‘right thing’. I have looked at this before in my posts on Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. For another point of view,  Lisa at ANZLL has just reviewed another book on the Underground Railroad, The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy (here).

I’m a big fan of the approach taken by Thea Astley: make it clear that modern Australian society is built on the atrocities that White settlers committed against Aboriginals, in historical times until right up to today – just look at Palm Island. Until we acknowledge those atrocities, and all the underlying injustices and unfairnesses that we use or used to make life difficult for Indigenous Australians, there can be no way forward, to genuine racial harmony.

So my problem with stories about honourable White people is that they allow White people today, and not just the White people who say, ‘don’t blame me I didn’t shoot and poison anyone’; they allow White people today to say, ‘well some of us were ok, we weren’t all bad’, and to slide out of acknowledging the great harm we have caused and perpetuate, and benefit from.

Coming home from Kalgoorlie with this review in my head I was listening to the Archie Roach album, Tracker. Lamenting the loss of Country in My History, Archie sings “And so I will only forgive when there is contrition.” I worry that stories like this deflect us from that moment.

The Last Runaway is not literary fiction, but it is a well-written story with an interesting underlying factual base, as is often the case with historical fiction (and, as a bonus for MST at Adventures in Biography, Honor is a quilter and there is a great deal of technical discussion about the differences between English and American quilts). Just don’t treat it as though it is the whole story, or even more than peripheral to the main story.

 

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version by AudioGO, UK, 2013 (8 hrs 45 min). Read by Laurel Lefkow