I’ve been an admirer of Tracy Chevalier’s novels, especially Girl with a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures, so I looked forward to this novel. Unfortunately, I was disappointed; this book is not of the caliber I’ve come to expect from this author.
The novel is set in the 1850s in Ohio. Honor Bright, a Quaker, leaves England after being jilted and finds herself in Ohio where she struggles to adapt to a new life. She becomes involved in the Underground Railroad despite the objections of her husband and his family.
One of the weaknesses is the character of Honor Bright. She tries to be an honourable person but she is not very bright. She is rather dull and bland and judgmental. This last failing she does acknowledge: “Perhaps, Honor thought one day, it is not that Americans are so wedded to individual expression, but that we British are too judgmental” (258). She spends a great deal of time being critical of rocking chairs and American quilting but devotes very little time to getting to know the man she agrees to marry. She knows “She could not go back” (1) but makes little effort to adjust to life in America; she has to be admonished by the two women she most admires to keep “an open mind” (292).
Most of the characters are one-dimensional. Donovan, the slave hunter, has the potential to be an interesting character, but he ends up being unbelievable. A runaway refers specifically to him at one point: “’Them slave hunters got a sense makes ‘em good at guessin’ where a runaway is. Otherwise they be out of a job. He’ll turn up again tonight – I can guarantee it’” (251). Nonetheless, he is constantly outwitted by his own sister even though he knows she assists runaways and he frequently watches her home.
There is some attempt to use literary devices, but they come across as heavy-handed. For example, after her first sexual experience, which takes place in a cornfield, Honor wonders “if there were snakes nearby; nothing was moving but it was only a matter of time before one appeared” (126). Then her marriage quilt is made for her by women with varying degrees of skill so she begins her married life “under a quilt of dubious quality. It was not an auspicious start” (132). This foreshadowing of problems in the marriage is anything but subtle. One technique I did like is the use of English versus American quilting styles as parallels to Honor’s difficulties in her new country: Honor’s English quilting style is unappreciated by the women in her new community and she is dismissive of American quilting.
I looked forward to learning more about Quakers, but the information is sketchy. They are pacifists; they will not lie; they will shun members of their community who marry outside their faith; they dress modestly; they use “thee” in conversation; they believe in the equality of all humans. All of this I knew. The only new thing I learned about the Religious Society of Friends is their attitude to pre-marital sex; perhaps I shouldn’t be skeptical of the research of an author known for her historical fiction, but I intend to do some research to determine if what Chevalier suggests is true.
I did appreciate one of the major themes explored in the novel: the difference between principles/religious beliefs and the practice of those principles/beliefs: “When an abstract principle became entangled in daily life, it lost its clarity and became compromised and weakened. Honor did not understand how this could happen, and yet it had: [the family into which she marries] had demonstrated how easy it was to justify stepping back from principles and doing nothing” (227). Quakers believe in the equality of all, but in the religious community to which Honor belongs, not all practice their belief; some choose not to help the slaves fleeing north.
This may seem a minor complaint to many, but I was very annoyed with the punctuation. Commas are left out when they are needed – “The day after Comfort was born Belle had sent word to the Haymakers” and put in where not needed – “Honor got that feeling she had when she was sewing together patchwork pieces, and saw that they fit” (259). These problems indicate poor editing.
At one point Honor says, “’. . . I do not feel settled. It is as if – as if I am floating above the ground, with my feet not touching’” (290). This is the feeling I had while reading this book. I was not engaged by the characters or the plot. Interestingly, I recently read The Purchase by Linda Spalding, another recent book about the Quakers and slavery. It too was unsatisfactory.