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The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

This review was initially published in the Globe and Mail.

The Last Runaway
Tracy Chevalier

Author of the bestselling Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier has set her seventh book in her native United States, for the first time. The novelist, who has lived in Britain for 30 years, has chosen to write about the tumultuous pre-Civil War period.

Honor Bright is a modest, taciturn Quaker woman who emigrates from Britain to the United States with her adventurous sister, Grace, after deep personal disappointment. Her sister is to marry Adam Cox, a British Quaker who has settled in a village in Ohio. After a horrendous ocean voyage, the sisters arrive in the United States, and Grace unexpectedly dies, leaving Honor stranded in a foreign and seemingly inhospitable land, where “flowers look different … even when they have the same name.”

Honor is able to rely on her fine sewing and quilting skills to earn her keep with a small-town milliner, Belle Mills, until her sister’s fiancé can come for her. But Honor is a woman of principle and order, and later finds the living arrangement with Adam and his recently widowed sister-in-law, Abigail, insufferable.

In the end, she has little choice: She must return to England or marry. And the pickings are indeed slim in rural Ohio. In spite of an undeniable attraction to Donovan, a bad-boy slave hunter, Honor marries into an influential Quaker family, but with some reservations.

In 1850, Ohio was a free state. Yet, slave-hunters crisscrossed the state, capturing fugitive slaves for the generous bounties. In addition, whites were prohibited by law from harbouring or protecting runaways. However, an estimated 40,000 slaves made their escape to Canada through Ohio, where there was a network of approximately 700 safe houses, or “depots” as they were known in the Underground Railroad, with the Quakers playing a crucial role.

Honor’s in-laws are abolitionists, but because of past tragedy, they refuse to break the law to help anyone on the run. Honor, nevertheless, finds that she is incapable of refusing assistance to those who appear at the farm, and becomes involved in the Underground Railroad.

The Last Runaway is a fast-paced, satisfying read, with Chevalier continually adding riveting details to keep the narrative rolling. There is some particularly insightful writing about the traditional art of quilt-making, which is on par with Chevalier’s writing on fossils in Remarkable Creatures. In fact, thorough research appears to be the hallmark of her work, lending it greater credibility and depth.

Most impressive is her credible yet subtle flair for signalling the presence of fugitive slaves. I found myself backtracking to find out exactly how she did it. Honor has, Chevalier writes, “an inner barometer that measured the change in the surrounding area, as one senses the air swelling before a thunderstorm. … People’s being gave off a kind of cold heat.”

As in Girl With a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures, the novelist presents strong women characters who are not afraid to take action. While fiction can always use more heroines with agency, I much preferred the plain-spoken, gun-toting Belle Mills to Honor. Honor’s harsh judgment of her new country and its people at times bordered on annoying self-righteousness. She was perhaps not the most flexible candidate for emigration. Nevertheless, I am curious to see how her character will be greeted on the other side of the Atlantic when The Last Runaway is released in Britain in March. And will British readers buy such an American tale?

For anyone interested in the Underground Railroad and the Pre-Civil War era, The Last Runaway is well worth your book-buying buck.

Other reviews

One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston
The World is Moving Around Me by Dany Laferrière
The Return by Dany Laferrière
5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
The Goodtime Girl by Tess Fragoulis


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Bilingual Children: Reading

Last weekend, I tackled a chore I've been meaning to do for a long time: weeding through our large collection of books. My husband and I gave away many of our much-loved paperbacks in favour of more living space and less clutter. In our purge, I found a box of children's books that once belonged to yours truly. I laughed when I saw my own name in a child's scrawl on the inside cover. I'd misjudged the space and had to add the final "r" in Heather on the next line.

My five-year-old was thrilled with the new additions to his library and didn't seem to mind that they were in English. French is the dominant language in our home, as both my children attend a French-language school and their father is a French-speaking Quebecer. My son's first choice was Horton Hears a Who, possibly because it was bigger and thicker than the other books. He is already wise to the fact that a longer book means a later bedtime. Horton was a little too difficult for a kindergarten student and required some explanations in French to maintain his interest. However, the Dr. Seuss beginner's series produced two favourites this week. Unsurprisingly, The Cat in the Hat was a big hit. My son loves rhymes, yelling out the last rhyme on every page. But the best book for learning English was Go Dog Go! My son adored the detailed drawings, and I loved all the repetition of sounds that rolled off our tongues. This is a fun book that I'm sure we'll read many times in the future.

Something else happened this week. Even though we have a copy of Je Suis Fou de Vava [I'm Crazy About Vava] by Dany Laferrière, my son brought a copy home from his school library and asked me to read it. He also blushed when he handed it to me. I had the distinct impression that his teacher or the librarian had read it to the class because this time he knew exactly what it was about--Laferrière's boyhood crush on a girl called Vava. When I'd finished reading it, he immediately took it to his father and asked him to read it again. I can't say I blame him. It's a bright beautiful book. Frédéric Normandin's breathtaking illustrations have strong Haitian naive art influences.

My son has taken to English, unlike my daughter who is now 10. Even as a young child she refused to listen to stories in English, even if it meant she could stay up later. Fortunately, she started to make a genuine effort to learn a few years ago. Our trips to the States have helped her see that there are indeed cool people who speak English. Besides, now the world revolves around Katy Perry, Adele and Ellen DeGeneres, and English is top. She's even talking about taking intensive English in high school. But I still encounter resistance in getting her to read in English with me. I was hoping to move on to a thin volume in English after finishing our current night-time read: Aurélie Laflamme by India Desjardins. But, while reading in English is important, reading without my insistence is the goal. I still entertain hope that one day she will be a bibliophile.

 Zee fingers are crossed.

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The World is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake By Dany Laferrière

The World is Moving Around Me:  A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake
Arsenal Pulp Press
By Dany Laferrière
Translated by David Homel

This review/interview was initially posted on the Montreal Review of Books.

At 4:53 pm, on January 12, 2010, Dany Laferrière was waiting for his lobster with two dinner companions at the restaurant of the Hôtel Karibe. The award-winning Montreal writer and Haitian ex-pat was in Port-au-Prince for the international Étonnants Voyageurs book and film festival. As he bit into some bread, he heard a terrible explosion. At first, he thought it was a machine gun, while later others would say it was a train. When the cooks ran out of the kitchen, he assumed that a boiler had exploded.  Laferrière and his companions fled the restaurant and lay on their backs in the hotel courtyard when the earth began to shake “like a piece of paper whipped by the wind.” They heard the roar of cement buildings crumbling and then saw a cloud of dust rising into the late afternoon sky. In his memoir The World is Moving Around Me, Laferrière writes that it was “as if a professional dynamiter had received the express order to destroy an entire city without blocking the streets so the cranes could pass.”

Exactly three years ago, Haiti was leveled by a massive earthquake, and while the international media was quick to give us an overall picture of the devastation through harrowing footage and dire statistics, it largely ignored the resilience of the Haitian people, something that the writer makes abundantly clear in his memoir. “The people of Haiti are champions in difficult situations, at ease in exceptional circumstances,” Laferrière told me at an interview on an overcast December afternoon at the Café Cherrier. “They’ve been doing just that for 200 years, since Haiti’s Independence.”

The World is Moving Around Me is made up of a series of first-person vignettes. Laferrière zeroes in on poignant details of the aftermath, bringing this cataclysmic event down to a human scale.  At the Hôtel Karibe, he and the other hotel guests slept outside on the tennis court after the initial quake, enduring another 43 tremors through the night. With limited means of communication, the author only realized the unfathomable depth of the disaster when he heard song in the early hours. A large crowd of people had formed in the street to sing, using song to assuage their pain. Nearby the hotel, a woman spent the night speaking to her husband and three children trapped beneath crumbled concrete, each of them eventually falling silent except for her squalling baby. In the end, only the smiling infant was pulled from the rubble. In the hours that followed, news trickled in of the destruction of the Presidential Palace, the courthouse, and the taxation and pension office.

After overcoming the initial shock, survivors had to contend with not only their guilt but also their fear of not finding their loved ones. Fortunately, Laferrière’s friend arrived at the hotel, offering to drive him to see his mother and sister, whom he had been unable to reach. On their way, the first thing they saw on the side of the road was a woman sitting with her back to a wall selling a dozen mangoes spread out in front of her. The mango vendor is a prime example of what the author refers to as the Haitian resilience—a woman who returns to selling mangoes, her livelihood, the day after a massive earthquake. “The mango vendor became the symbol of renewal after the earthquake.” Laferrière told me over coffee. “That was the point when people started to pick themselves up.” The human side of the reconstruction had begun.

This statement, however, is in stark contrast with the message the powerful western media delivered in the wake of the disaster.  Apparently, Haiti was “cursed,” and the headlining statistics supported that label: 318,000 deaths, 300,000 injured, and 1 million left homeless. But the author convincingly argues that this type of reporting only undermined the efforts of Haitians to rise to their considerable challenge. In the vignette A Semantic Battle, he writes, “But it [‘cursed’] is not the right word, especially when you see the energy and dignity displayed by the nation as it faces one of the most difficult tests of our time .... All some commentator has to say is the word ‘curse’ on the airwaves and it spreads like a cancer.”

The media presented a panoramic view of the disaster, while Laferrière chose to tell the story as it unfolded around him, fleshing out the tiny details to give a beautifully layered, thoughtful account of his own first-hand experience.  “In this type of situation, no one sees the entire situation,” he told me at our interview. “We only see the situation and the people in the immediate area. I understood this right away and didn’t try to give an overall picture.”

Laferrière’s memoir delivers much more food for thought about the human condition in the wake of a natural disaster than the superficial accounts broadcast by our up-to-the-minute media, with its barrage of statistics and horrific images. I asked Laferrière about his approach to literary reportage. “I wanted to see how a writer could describe an event that he was so closely involved in,” the author said. “And do it with aplomb, paying the event the respect it deserves and approaching it as art, while adhering to the principles of reporting.”

I also asked Laferrière how it fit into his body of work. He said, “I wrote it precisely because it was in line with my work. For me, it was fundamental, a way of making sense of the earthquake.” And that is exactly what the World Moving Around Me allows the reader to do—make sense of the earthquake. It also serves up a compelling argument for why we need more long-form journalism.

Other reviews:

The Return by Dany Laferrière

5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Finding Dawn by Christine Welch
The Fruit Hunters by Yung Chang


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