Thursday, 14 August 2014

Book of the Month: The Last Runaway (Tracey Chivalier)

The protagonist of Tracy Chivalier’s 2012 novel, The Last Runaway, is a twenty year old Quaker woman named Honor Bright.

The name of the protagonist and her Quaker background are clues as to the course of the heroine’s life in the novel. Whether Honor Bright is bright can be a matter of opinion; what cannot be doubted are her honourable intentions. The woman is more upright than Gandhi and more honourable Mother Teresa.

Jilted by her Quaker fiancĂ© in England who decides to abandon not just Honor but his faith in order to marry a non-Quaker woman he has fallen in love with, Honor decides to leave the bad memories and the Quaker community of Bridport, Dorest behind, and travels with her more enterprising sister, Grace, who is set to go to Ohio, America to join her Quaker betrothed, an ex-neighbour of the Bright family. Upon reaching America Grace swiftly (and conveniently) pops her clogs and Adam Cox, the man who is set to marry Grace (and does not know of Grace’s death) ,is faced with Grace’s younger sister, who, he doesn’t know, has travelled with Grace to America. After spending a few awkward weeks in the Cox household—Abigail, Grace’s would be sister-in-law, recently widowed herself, and, as subsequent developments show, having marked Adam as a possible replacement for his dead brother, does not take kindly to the uninvited guest, possibly marking her as a rival—Honor, not keen at all on returning to England, although in her letters to her friend back in Bridport she moans endlessly about the brash Americans who lack subtlety, because of her horror of sea-sickness (!), marries into another Quaker family in the community, after making love with her would be husband, Jack Haymaker, in a cornfield (a very un-Quakerish behaviour, if you ask me, although I am no expert on the mores of the nineteenth century Quakers). Honor starts her new life with the Haymakers, with her husband, Jack; mother-in-law, Judith; and Jack's unmarried sister, Dorcas. At this stage Honor is faced with a moral dilemma that threatens to break her marriage (and which gives the novel its title). Soon after she reaches Ohio Honor becomes aware of the so called Underground Railroad, a network of liberal minded Americans who provide shelter and food to slaves who are escaping from South, towards freedom in Canada. Indeed soon after her arrival in America, while awaiting Adam Cox to fetch her, Honor spends a few days with a feisty alcoholic (no cause and effect relationship, here) named Belle Mills, who is heavily involved in the Underground Railroad. Her half-brother, Donavon, on the other hand, is an egg that is bad (and not even trying to be good). Donovan is a slave-catcher, and has the law on his side. Herein lies Honor’s moral dilemma. As a Quaker she is vehemently against slavery and wants to do what she can to help the escaping slaves who are passing through Ohio; at the same time, as a Quaker, she is also expected to obey the law. Her in-laws are in no doubt as to what course of action the family should follow: obey the law and steer clear of the runaway slaves. The slaves have obviously enough wits about them that brought them all the way from the South to Ohio; and the same wits would see them make their way to freedom in Canada. And if they get caught, well, it’s too bad, but what can anyone do about it? Honor Bright begs to differ. She wants to hide the slaves from Donavon, and give them water and such comestible as can be gathered. (Donavon seems to be the only slave-catcher in the area who, for reasons best known to him, has taken into his head that stalking the Quaker community, in particular the Haymakers, would greatly enhance his chances of catching slaves.) The situation in the Haymaker family is fast reaching what the hostage negotiators describe as impasse. Honor Bright refuses to back down, and, even though Jack has managed to put her bun in the oven, decides to leave the marital home to stay with Belle Mills. Belle is not best pleased with this development, not because she does not wish to share her alcoholic beverage (although that could be a reason; the recidivist alcoholics have been known to be notoriously selfish in these matters), but because she is worried that Honor's presence in her house might put her secret activities linked to Underground Railroad in jeopardy. And she is right. Donovan the rapscallion begins visiting his half-sister's house with worrying frequency, giving signals that are hard to miss (and ignore) that while he suspects Honor of harbouring sympathy for the runaway slaves he also finds the pregnant Quaker woman a trouser-stirrer. The end, when it finally comes, is as predictable as it is formulaic. It all ends well for Honor, you will be pleased to know. Donovan meets his comeuppance; and the person who sends him packing to his meeting with his Maker is Belle, who can't be prosecuted for murder as she herself is dying having drunk her way to liver cirrhosis.

Tracy Chivalier, an American novelist who lives in England (and probably has a Quaker background), has built for herself a formidable reputation as a novelist of historical fiction. In The Last Runaway she attempts to combine historical narrative with romance. The result is a strangely unconvincing and anaemic novel. Chivalier, as the afterwards of the novel informs, has undertaken a lot of historical research for this novel. (The Underground Railroad system, for example, was an actual system run by the whites that helped slaves on the run from their masters.) To Chivalier’s credit, for the most part, she does not allow the painstaking research to sit heavily on the novel, and avoids the temptation of showing off. The first half of the novel is full of what can be described period details aimed at conveying the minutiae of the daily life of the nineteenth century Quakers. The readers can be excused for feeling a tad weary after being subjected to a detailed account, that runs into pages, of how quilts are sown, accompanied by a scholarly discourse on the relative merits of the American and English styles (the English type is more intricate and requires more skills, in case you want to know).

The problem with the novel is that the plot does not really go anywhere. There is no drama. It is almost as if Chivalier is too much in awe of the central character. Honor Bright has the conviction of her beliefs that one can expect in the self-righteous. The moral uppitines, combined with the fact that Honor, in reality, is doing not a great deal to ease the afflictions of the runaway slaves (leaving water and dried meat outside of the house must have been of help, but it would stretch the limits of credulity to think that the slaves, who have managed to travel several hundred kilometres, would have been unable to survive without the meagre food rations; and did they really need the Haymakers when the there seems to be only a solitary slave-catcher in the region, Donavon, whose attentions and energies are divided between getting drunk and casting lustful glances at Honor’s loins?) makes Honor Bright, for the most part, more irritating than a kidney stone. The latent sexual attraction between Honor and Donavon remains just that; this strand of the novel remains frustratingly underdeveloped. The main the characters are either two-dimensional or cartoonishly implausible or both.

The strength of the novel is its prose. There is a soothing quality and an understated elegance to Chivalier’s prose that makes The Last Runaway an easy enough read despite its rather lame story that is neither a romance nor serious historical fiction. Not one of Chivalier’s best, I am afraid.