Friday, February 15, 2013

Historical Fiction, Timely Writ

Before writing a review of this book for, I asked myself this question: What should great historical fiction do? Given the fact that I am drawn to this challenge as a writer, the question is apt. It has always been my intention to bring back to life, an event, an era, and a moment in time. In order to accomplish this feat, I need to know and these aspects: the setting, the date, the place, the county, the town, the house, the kitchen and the back garden. Do the events of the past have any significance in the present? Was there a struggle? Did our heroine fight her way through it, delivering us to the comfortable time in which we now find ourselves? 

In The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier who many readers may know from Girl with a Pearl Earring, can take a bow as an author who can transport us all back to a particular time and place. She tells the the story of Honor Bright, a dignified Quaker woman who leaves England to accompany her sister to America. When yellow fever takes her sister's life, she is stranded, is alone and is traveling to a small community in Ohio. The first and most obvious question as to why she does not return home, has a simple explanation. Plagued with ghastly seasickness, she simply can not stomach the idea of another voyage. Marooned, her challenge is to find her place. As in all great stories involving a journey, memorable characters help her along the way. A milliner, a slave catcher and her sister's intended, are her first ports of call. However, the path is not smooth. Even though she is with fellow Quakers, she finds they are different. America, caught in the crossfire of the last days of slavery, is tense and guarded.  From the beginning, George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, set down the tenant that all people carry the same light of God within, and therefore, are not to be enslaved, owned, or sold. For Honor, this belief is a given, but in England they were not living with slaves in their midst. In Ohio, the recent passage of the Fugitive Slave Law means those who seek to aid escapees, face steep penalties.

As time goes on, Honor marries. Both her husband and his mother forbid Honor to use their farm as a link in the chain. She is in the grips of a moral dilemma. Her friendship with the milliner, means that she is caught up with the  underground railroad  from the moment she arrives in Ohio. Her beliefs and her conscience are tested. How far are we willing to go to right a wrong of which we are entirely certain? This is the central question.

Chevalier uses her considerable skill to put us in the time and place. England, she points out, is a land ordered by hedgerows, and settled for over one thousand years where houses built of stone sit on ample farms, giving it a delicious and pleasing air. In Ohio, Honor balks at the size and scope of the new territory; it looms large and terrifying in her mind. The diet she finds less varied, the eternal corn mush, tasteless, the climate, too cold and then too hot, the people more outspoken, and the needlework, less skilled. Yet she presses on with the inherent, gentle persistence that makes up her sensibility. Her new family are less than friendly and when she takes matters into her own hands, she is chastised. A baby is born, and in their frustration, they let her know that they will take the child from her and send her on her way. Conform, or be shunned and abandoned with no maternal rights; that is where she finds herself.

With the same skill that brought us right into a Vermeer, as in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier leads us to the harsh farms and small minded communities of nineteenth century America. A character who lives in our mind, one of  whom it can be said almost walks and breathes, is what makes Tracy Chevalier a remarkable author. Honor Bright is not a one dimensional heroine, just as the slave catcher Donovan is not an evil antagonist. Characters in this novel have painterly shades, as does the landscape and the culture. Certainly, the paradox of slavery and its long aftermath is a worthy subject for any American tale. In the capable hands of Tracy Chevalier, it is pieced together as remarkable quilt: rich, textured, varied, but composed of great design.

Of the millions enslaved in nineteenth century America, only thirty thousand escaped. One can only imagine that Lake Erie never looked more beautiful, as it loomed large before these brave souls, the watery passage from bondage to freedom



Jan Cline said...

Good questions to ask - as a writer of historical fiction, I need to ask them of myself as I write. Great review.

I want to remind your group of the Inland NW Christian writers conference coming in March.
Hope to see some of you there.
Jan Cline

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Thank you so much Jan.