In 1850, Honor Bright leaves England for Ohio, accompanying her sister Grace who is engaged to be married. Grace dies on the voyage and Honor is left to face the many challenges of adjusting to life far from home.
On her way to Oberlin, Ohio to meet her sister’s fiancé, Adam Cox, she’s taken in by a milliner, who Honor discovers is an abolitionist and helps runaway slaves. A talented quilter, Honor helps make hats, while observing the nuances of the Underground Railway. As a Quaker, she despises slavery.
Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway is a fast, satisfying read. Honor doesn’t get along well with the Coxes and marries a local farmer whose family, albeit Quakers, refuses to assist runaway slaves, afraid of the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act. Honor defies them, and secretly provides food and shelter to runaways.
Chevalier fans won’t be disappointed in this historical fiction that brings the Underground Railroad to life and portrays the conflicts, even among those opposed to slavery, in breaking the law. Descriptions of quilt making and a love triangle add to the mix. The book is an homage also to Oberlin; Chevalier attended Oberlin College, and the town and college were active in helping runaway slaves. She describes the seasons- from long, brutal winters to scorching summers. “The thaw was like a fist unclenching, with the world- and Honor in it- expanding in the newly formed palm.” (p. 187).
Barbara Vine’s The Child’s Child was another good read. Vine, the pseudonym of British mystery writer Ruth Rendell, writes a novel within a novel. In present day London, brother and sister Andrew and Grace Easton inherit a large house from their grandmother and move in together. Andrew’s lover James soon arrives, creating tension, and an unexpected encounter with Grace, who is writing her Ph.D thesis on the stigma attached to unmarried mothers. She’s reading a novel, The Child’s Child set in pre-World War I Britain about a brother and sister, who pose as a married couple to hide his homosexuality and her illegitimate pregnancy. Disparaging attitudes about both situations span both stories, reminding the reader that while much has changed, much remains the same.