What do we really know about Quakers? When we get down to it, not much aside from our time-honored stereotypes: the man on the box of oats, the 1956 Gary Cooper movie, Friendly Persuasion, Aaron Copland’s Applachian Spring with its plaintive Shaker hymns that evoke a dreamy vision of an agrarian past. A good deal of our understanding is shaped by this image of a clannish group of early American settlers, swathed in somber colors who address each other with a Biblical formality and have an unusually keen aptitude for quilting, baking, and founding mid-Atlantic universities.
Tracy Chevalier, who has become one of the most celebrated and popular writers of historical fiction today, with sweeping novels such as Girl with the Pearl Earring (1999), The Lady and the Unicorn (2003), and Remarkable Creatures (2009), has turned her gaze to 19th century America, in 1850, to rural Ohio, and particularly to the town of Oberlin, the home of her own alma mater, Oberlin College. The heroine of her latest book, The Last Runaway, is Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman of great resilience and strength, who travels from her native Dorset with her sister to settle in Faithwell, Ohio with her brother-in-law.
Grace dies of yellow fever en route to America and Honor is left to live with her awkward brother-in-law, Adam, the owner of the town’s dry goods store, and his stern, recently widowed sister-in-law, Abigail. With Adam and Abigail, one can’t help but think of a Quaker version of Nels and Harriet Oleson from Little House on the Prairie, the epitome of small-town petty-bourgeois striving, and indeed this is a story set in the mid-West, with a cast of characters that reflect the vagaries of small-town life.
Honor befriends a successful milliner, Belle Mills, in a neighboring town who, like another Belle, Belle Whatling, the madam with a heart-of-gold from Gone with the Wind, stands out as a robust, warm character who is the sole friend and surrogate mother to Honor. Complications arise, however, when Belle’s brother, Donovan, the local slave catcher, takes a fancy to Honor, and she in her own way is sexually attracted to him—this is that Gothic element of the story, and Chevalier like few other writers can dissect the Victorian novel in a way that re-works its conventions to create a bold new story.
But Honor must marry within the faith, and she does, to Jack Haymaker, an attractive but shallow dairy farmer with a stern mother-in-law who is the head of town’s moral police and petticoat brigade. Oberlin of the 1850s was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, that perilous route that runaway slaves took from the South towards Canada. Before long, Honor is feeding, sheltering, and guiding runaways with the help of local freed slave named Mrs. Reed.
This act of courage comes with a price. The Haymaker family and much of the Faithwell Quaker community are opposed to aiding and abetting runaway slaves. The newly minted Fugitive Slave Act punishes any accomplice by exorbitant fines and confiscation of private property. When Honor’s family and community forbid her to act on her convictions, she rebels and runs away herself.
As a character, Honor resembles Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot of Persuasion, strong, passionate, but often subdued by the whims of others in her life. The story of her life in America in the 15 years prior to the Civil War charts her personal growth towards independence. Helping runaway slaves Chevalier’s argument is that slavery is a much as psychological form of oppression as it was a physical aspect of an unjust law.
We see that Honor is bound to her community, to her husband, to rules of decorum that are unfair and illogical and only add to her sense of oppression. Honor finds some liberation in the creative act, however. She’s an expert at sewing and quilting and her skills garner the admiration and envy of all around her. Like Greet, the shy maid from Girl with the Pearl Earring, Honor is a gifted artist and she derives personal strength from her talent.
Chevalier does a brilliant job of evoking the lush, mysterious wilderness of 19th century Ohio, its climate, its flora and fauna, down to the particular smell of the air at a certain time of day. “I had no idea before coming to America just how hard it is to create farmland out of woods,” Honor writes to her mother. “You know I have always loved trees, but here they are so overwhelmingly abundant that they feel threatening rather than welcoming.” And in taking in the land around the Haymaker’s farm,
“Honor had always thought that she loved trees, but now the beech woods her brothers had climbed in, the apple orchard behind their house, the horse chestnuts they collected conkers from each autumn, all seemed tame next to the bur oaks and black ash and beeches and maples that made up the woods by the farm.”
Even native insects, like fireflies, or “lightning bugs”, as the locals call them, are strange and intoxicatingly exotic.
The Last Runaway is a beautifully flowing, meticulously crafted historical novel—a treat for anyone who is interested in pre-Civil War American history (and now with recent movies like Lincoln and Django Unchained, I expect there will be more people who are). The novel chronicles a woman’s growing consciousness amid a transitional and fraught time in the country’s history—a kind of pioneer-era Persuasion. At the end, Honor begins to understand something elusive about what she’s heard of, described as “the American spirit.”
“Then I was running away, and it was as if my eyes were shut… Now my eyes are open, and I can walk forward… It is what Americans do. Perhaps that is what I am becoming at last. I am learning the difference between running from and running towards.”