Book review: “The Last Runaway” by Tracy Chevalier

This was one of my holidays reads and one of two books my book club chose for our summer break. It’s only my third Tracy Chevalier novel, but each time I read her I just want more! I read Girl with a Pearl Earring years ago when it was first published and then The Lady and the Unicorn a year or so ago, which I thought was wonderful. I have since picked up Virgin Blue from my local secondhand bookshop so that will be next on my list.

The Last Runaway imgOne thing that is so impressive about Chevalier is how beautifully she creates the  historical setting: the two novels I have read so far have been set in 17th century Holland and 15th century Paris and Brussels and I can only begin to imagine the amount of research she has to undertake. The Last Runaway is set in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century when parts of the country were only just being settled. Honor Bright, our main character is a young Quaker woman from Dorset in England. She has led a modest and sheltered life, but her world was turned upside down when her fiancé left her and their close-knit Quaker community for another woman. This was not only a scandal but it left Honor distraught and in a very difficult position. When her sister, Grace, is persuaded by her fiancé that they should move to America, Honor decides she must go with her, not only to support her sister, but to escape the oppression of her situation and have some chance of making a life for herself.

Their journey from Bristol to New York is arduous and Honor suffers with debilitating seasickness. As they travel the long distance from New York to Ohio, Grace contracts Yellow Fever and dies. This places Honor in a further difficult position: not only must she tell Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, that she is dead, but she is also in fear about where that leaves her as he, of course, has no obligation to support her. Honor, however, cannot face going back to England either because of the journey or the shame.

On the final leg of her journey, Honor has a frightening encounter with a local slave-hunter, Donovan. Honor is appalled both by his profession and his dangerous air, and yet also finds herself strangely drawn to him when he seems to flirt with her. This also sends her into a tailspin as it conflicts with her Quaker outlook and moral code.

Honor arrives in the small town of Wellington, close to Faithwell, her intended destination. There, she finds quarters with Belle Mills, the local milliner, who, it transpires, is also the half-sister of the mysterious Donovan. Belle warns Honor about him and it is clear there is a tension between these siblings. During her stay with Belle, Honor adapts her talent for quilting (quilting, its traditions, the patterns and its place in Quaker culture, are a strong and fascinating motif running through the novel) and shows promise as a hat-maker, endearing her to Belle and her many customers. Belle’s designs are often flamboyant, which is an anathema to Honor, who, as a Quaker, must observe plainness and modesty in all forms of dress. The two women develop a firm friendship, however, and Honor begins to feel more confident.

Honor first realises there is something strange going on when she finds a black man under a woodpile in the yard of Belle’s home. Honor is aware of the existence of the slave trade, indeed, the Quakers were an important part of the movement calling for its abolition, but this is the first time she has come so close to an escapee. She is terrified, particularly when Donovan comes searching at his sister’s property, sensing the presence of the runaway. Honor later learns that Belle is part of a network of citizens who provided the means of escape, food and shelter for runaway slaves fleeing the South to states which had already outlawed slavery – the ‘underground railroad’. Belle was what was known as a ‘station-master’.

Honor is collected from Belle’s by Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, and taken back to Faithwell, to live with him and his sister-in-law (also widowed) and to work in their shop. The domestic situation is uncomfortable for Honor, however, and her prospects only  brighten when she is wooed and then married to fellow Quaker Jack Haymaker. At first it seems like a good marriage that will improve Honor’s situation, but her mother-in-law proves to be a formidable presence, who does not conceal her contempt for her daughter-in-law and how little she has to offer when Honor goes to live with them on their isolated farm. At first, Jack is attentive and loving, but quickly becomes complacent and Honor grows increasingly miserable, despite her efforts to feel and appropriate degree of godly gratitude. Tensions deepen when Honor decides she will provide support for runaway slaves passing through their property. This is against the expressed wishes of the Haymakers. A law has been passed which makes it illegal for anyone to help a runaway, and the penalties are severe. Whilst the Quakers are against slavery, they are also against law-breaking and Honor’s actions are seen as a threat to their livelihood. Honor finds herself increasingly in conflict with the family until the point where her position becomes untenable. All the while, Donovan hovers in the background, stalking Honor and sniffing out runaways.

I will say no more as the events of the story then take quite dramatic turns. I loved the unexpected twists of the plot. I also love the way the author wove in details about the slave trade and the underground railroad (which I confess I knew very little about). Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad brought the existence of this movement to the attention of many readers for the first time, I think. I was not aware that Tracy Chevalier had also written this novel about it. I also loved the domesticity of this novel, its femaleness and the feminine craft of homemaking, particularly in relation to the skills required for good quilting. This seems to be a common theme in Chevalier’s work. I loved how strong the women were in this novel; the men do not come out looking so good!

I recommend this book highly. It’s a great story, a fascinating read and will give you an insight into worlds you may not know much about.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your views.

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Book Review: “Harvesting” by Lisa Harding

This book was given to me by a family member as a Secret Santa gift last year. I have been dying to read it for ages but it seemed to keeping slipping down the TBR list (does that happen to you too?) I determined to read it on my summer holiday, although in many ways it was rather a strange choice; not your traditional beach read! The subject matter is child sex trafficking and the author, a well-known actor in Ireland, came up with the idea after she became involved with a campaign to raise awareness of the issue in 2012.

Harvesting img

The book tells the parallel stories of two young girls, Nico and Sammy. Nico is from Moldova. She lives in a deprived rural setting, her family is poor and her father and two of her brothers are cruel and misogynistic. They have become brutalised by their poverty and by the systemic corruption and organised crime in their society. Nico’s mother is oppressed and powerless to stop the terrible fate that awaits her daughter. Nico has another brother, Luca, who disagrees with the family’s plans for her and wants to protect her, but he also cannot stand in their way. Lacking money for even a basic standard of living, Nico’s father sells his daughter for marriage to an older man, as soon as she starts her periods (so she is around 13). As far as the prevailing culture is concerned, she is a woman now and the family see no reason why they should continue to support her, so they seek to profit from her. Nico’s father believes that Petre, Nico’s future ‘husband’, will give Nico a good life in London and buy her all the things her family have been unable to give her. The two men are colluding in a mutual self-deception, one assumes because this is the only way that Nico’s father can justify selling his child in this way.

Nico is effectively kidnapped and it becomes very quickly apparent that she along with a number of other girls, is to be prepared for life as a prostitute. Nico is particularly valuable because she is so young and a virgin. The girls are drugged, abused, beaten and then trafficked across European borders until eventually they reach Ireland. Petre’s girlfriend Magda is the only person able to protect Nico even a little from the worst excesses of the gangsters and she is only able to do so on the basis that Nico is worth more if they treat her less cruelly than if she becomes ill through mistreatment. It is the only fragment of protection that Nico has.

The other main protagonist in the book is Sammy, a young Irish girl, of around 16, who represents a different side of sex slavery. She falls into a life of prostitution almost by accident. Problems at home (her mother is an alcoholic and her father can only cope by separating himself) and at school lead to her leaving home and falling into the hands of adults who exploit and abuse her. Sammy presents a more challenging character, firstly because, at a superficial level, her problems seem to be of her own making; she is rebellious, uncooperative and undisciplined. She puts herself in dangerous situations which have been interpreted as attention-seeking acts. She is a child out of control and has sacrificed the sympathy of those who might (should!) help her, such as the school authorities. What Harding does skilfully, though, is show us that, despite the fact that she is sassy and street-wise, Sammy is a child and no less deserving of protection than the more ‘innocent’ Nico.

What is also particularly chilling about Sammy’s story is that in a modern democratic western society, with liberal traditions, social services and proper policies and procedures in place to protect young people, even a young girl from a middle-class background can fall through the cracks and, worse, some of those who should be protecting her, are part of the problem.

The two girls eventually meet when they find themselves in the same suburban brothel and their fates become intertwined. This is not a book for the faint-hearted and some readers may find they are unable to bear the sex scenes. It is hard-hitting. Some aspects of it are almost unbelievable; as a frequent visitor to Ireland for many years now I find it difficult to accept that there is a huge underground network providing children for an illicit sex trade in a city I know and love. But the author has clearly researched the story extensively, and fact-checked with people who work and campaign in this field. This lends the book a shocking credibility. And we know from child sexual abuse cases of recent years that the worst perpetrators are often hiding in plain sight, and that the collective disbelief that people could act in such ways can blind us to the realities. This book will definitely shake you out of any complacency.

I recommend this book – it is hard to say it’s enjoyable, more that it is an important book, that is compelling, thought-provoking and necessarily shocking. It is well-written with strong characters.

Can you recommend any similarly hard-hitting but important books?

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