The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
(E.P. Dutton & Penguin Audio, 2013)
Format: Audio CDs via library (narrated by Kate Reading)
From Goodreads: "Tracy Chevalier’s newest historical saga introduces Honor Bright, a modest English Quaker who moves to Ohio in 1850, only to find herself alienated and alone in a strange land. Fleeing personal disappointment, she is forced by family tragedy to rely on strangers in a harsh, unfamiliar landscape.
In her new home Honor discovers that principles count for little, even within a religious community meant to be committed to human equality.
However, drawn into the clandestine activities of the Underground Railroad, Honor befriends two surprising women who embody the remarkable power of defiance. Eventually she must decide if she too can act on what she believes in, whatever the personal costs."
I'm continuing the tour of "hey, Mel & Rob tromped over the same ground as this writer" with Chevalier's latest novel. (She was in the MA class a year behind me. Therefore, I, too, should have many best-selling & movies-adapted novels to my name. Alas. But, look, I have a blog!) This time, she's gone to her other collegiate stomping ground, Oberlin, and its history as a transit point of the Underground Railroad.
Honor Bright is just flat-out a wonderful character. Chevalier has superb skill at creating women who are interesting - smart, observant, out-of-place but determined despite the odds, willing to learn from their mistakes and see their flaws. And this is a complex world, ripe with opportunities for misstep - Honor has found herself essentially alone within a small Friends community just outside Oberlin, Ohio. Her family is all back in England, where at most she can hope to receive news that is only a couple of months out of date, and her dire seasickness on the crossing prohibits a simple return to them. But even more lonesome than Honor are the runaway slaves she encounters, trying to make it to Canada before new, harsher Fugitive Slave Laws go into effect. She befriends two more wonderful women - milliner Belle Mills, and freewoman Mrs. Reed - and I loved how, although neither was Quaker and both relationships were limited by the secrets they all kept, the three communed in a way over needlecraft. Honor keeps so much internal, but when her sewing resonates with that of another skilled seamstress, it allows them a sort of exchange of spirit, if not of words. Of course, sometimes the gist of that conversation is, "Honor Bright, you may be something special, but that doesn't mean that you understand this new land of yours. Sit back and learn before you judge too much, okay?"
I dove into this in audio, and while I know I'd have embraced it regardless, Reading's narration was spot-on. Her voices - particularly Belle and her slave-hunter brother Donovan - captured the spirit of each character, and whenever Honor mused on her connections to others, how she felt about that person was abundantly clear in Reading's tone.