Sometimes you finish reading a novel and there was so much going on there, you need to digest it before moving on – so this is me digesting, chewing on what I’ve read.
The book in question is The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, a novel based in 1850s America – a time when slavery was still alive and kicking in the South but illegal in the North, and some people tried to help runaway slaves to reach Canada because once they crossed the border they’d be safe. In the North they weren’t safe, because Federal law made it legal for slave owners or slave catchers to seize a runaway even in states where slavery itself was illegal; and it was illegal to help fugitives. But Canada had become a safe haven for runaway slaves since Britain abolished slavery in 1834. (All of this is stuff I’ve only learned now, through reading the very informative Author’s Note at the end of the book.)
The novel’s main character is a woman who has just come from England, so we’re discovering everything through her eyes. She is a Quaker, and had heard slavery discussed back home, but now she’s right in the thick of it and has to face the reality of the situation – human beings with all their complexities, not just theoretical principles. Believing that everyone is equal in God’s eyes doesn’t automatically make people colour blind, and prejudices still exist. Believing that it’s morally wrong to treat another human being as property – that’s something that her fellow Quakers in Ohio also share, but not everyone has it in them to break the law and take the risks involved. As Tracy Chevalier says at the end of her Author’s Note: “Everyone wants to think their families would have done the right thing in such circumstances” – but what comes out loud and clear from the story is that none of us know how we would have acted, because life isn’t as straightforward as that.
Honor, the main character who is newly arrived from England, finds herself marrying a fellow Quaker and only later discovering the reasons why he and his family refuse to help runaway slaves. At first it seems like they’re just being heartless – surely no one with a conscience would turn away a fellow human being who needs a crust of bread and some straw to hide in? But as we find out what happened to this family when they were still living in the South, we learn that they’re not really that free – one thread that I felt was going through the whole story is that, in some sense, everyone was trapped. No one in that story was truly free… maybe with the one exception of Honor’s friend Belle, who knew she was dying and could therefore afford to take greater risks.
In a way, I suppose Honor represents us, today’s novel readers, who are totally divorced from that situation, slavery is something we’ve heard about and to us, living so long after it was abolished, it’s so totally clear that it was wrong – so we enter into the story, with Honor we see a runaway slave and it seems that obviously she should be helped, with Honor we are horrified when a runaway is caught and taken back, with Honor we are shocked when her husband and his mother tell her that she mustn’t help the runaways – we share her shock at people who are unwilling to stand up for what’s right, we judge them as cowardly and unprinicpled, until we find out their family’s story and learn what heavy price they have already paid, and then we begin to realise that it’s really not that straightforward, and who knows what we would have done in their shoes.
I was so glad that the ending was not the one I was expecting. It felt to me like the story was going in one inevitable direction, and I was dreading it: I thought she would end up leaving her husband for the other guy… Yes, there’s another thread in this story which I haven’t mentioned yet: the other love interest, the slave hunter who fell in love with Honor right in the beginning. If this was a Mills & Boon story, they’d have ended up together – such an unlikely pair, it’s a classic plotline… And at some point there was that conversation between them, where he talked about changing his ways for her, but then she told him she was carrying her husband’s child and that was the end of that conversation.
Towards the end of the story she leaves her husband and goes to stay with her friend Belle (who, as it happens, is this slave hunter’s sister, but she is totally on the other side of the fence and actively helps fugitives herself). Honor felt she couldn’t stay in that situation any more, living with her husband on the family farm and being ordered to refuse help to any runaways who turn up. I thought the name of the book was a hint at this: that Honor herself was the last runaway, that she was escaping the situation she felt trapped in. And how would she escape? She couldn’t stay with Belle forever because Belle was ill and dying. She had a baby to think of – and the family were threatening to take the baby away from her if she didn’t come back to the farm. And in those days women didn’t have the freedoms that we take for granted in the west today.
What I was fully expecting was that she would go west with that other guy and they’d start a new life there – it’s what people were doing in America at the time, there’s lots of references to that trend in the book. But I was dreading it because morally it’s not a plot ending I could have cheered – a woman leaving her husband for another man.
I won’t give you all the gory details here, but in a way that I totally wasn’t expecting, the author managed to bring the plot to a much much better ending, using Belle’s freedom to take risks because she was dying anyway, and getting Honor and her husband to finally have the conversation they needed to have and to agree that they can’t carry on the way they’d been, something needs to change – and so, in the end, Jack and Honor and the baby do what so many Americans were doing, pack their stuff and go west, to start a new life together. So yes, she goes west, but with the right man. And I think by that point she understands him a lot better, she understands the very difficult and complex situation he’s in. She understands that sometimes “doing the right thing” isn’t all that obvious or straightforward, and the risks can be huge.