Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dallas vs. Chevalier

I had the absolutely bizarre experience of having 26 hours to myself this weekend, and I suspect no one is surprised that I used it to read a bunch of books.  One of them was Tracy Chevalier's The Last Runaway, which I'd been pretty excited about.

I think part of my excitement was that a mainstream historical novel had caught my eye.  I do read an awful lot of speculative fiction. Another part was the Quakers--love the Quakers!  Love most books about religious people wrestling with real world problems, actually--it's not so much about the spirituality as about how processing the world might be different if you have a firm set of rules that you're starting with, however you feel about them.  Anyway, it's an interesting time period, from a point of view I didn't know much about, and I was excited.

In retrospect, part of the appeal was probably that the description of the book brought Sandra Dallas to mind.  I really should read more Sandra Dallas; I have a whole backlog of them.  (Including one about Mormons!)  But I think that the idea of a Sandra Dallas type book with the literary cachet of Tracy Chevalier (does she have literary cachet?  Or am I just remembering that one big Girl with a Pearl Earring moment?) really got my hopes up. 

In the end, I was wishing it was more like a Sandra Dallas book.  I ended up feeling very disconnected from most of the characters, and not particularly emotionally invested in their fates.  I liked the details of living in 1850 Ohio, especially coming from a bustling city in England--milliners, dairy farmers, crazy liberals in Oberlin.  And I can't say I didn't like Honor Bright, the story's heroine.  I just didn't really connect with her.

When Honor's spunky sister decides to move to America to marry a man she  hasn't seen in years, recently jilted Honor--pretty much the definition of non-spunky--makes the most spontaneous decision of her life to join her.  A month of harrowing seasickness convinces her that she will never be able to return to England and is stuck in America.  Halfway to their new home in Ohio, her sister dies suddenly of a fever.  Now all Honor has to look forward to is a never-to-be brother-in-law in a place she wasn't all that keen on going to in the first place.

Honor (and her family, and her future community) is a Quaker, and in 1850, this often means being in the middle of the slavery question.  I think the political angles of that question were quite interesting, and the fact that all of the Quakers appear to feel differently on the subject was also nicely complicated.  But Honor is so reserved, so distant from everyone, you really don't get to know anyone in this book.  Everything is seen from the outside, and I felt very detached.

Then there's Donovan, the charming slave hunter who crosses Honor's path repeatedly.  This is a Jordan Catalano moment if there ever was one--which might mean something different to you than it does to me.  I never understood the appeal of Jordan Catalano.  I mean, yeah, he's cute.  I get that a high school girl would fall for this.  But everyone--parents, teachers, viewers--seems to think he's deep and smart if only he'd try harder.  He's not.  Jordan Catalano gives every indication of being actually, genuinely dim.

Somehow everyone things there's a good man in Donovan who will do the right thing.  Even though he's a slave hunter.  Even though he's quite cruel to many people.  Honor keeps saying that she thinks there's the potential for a good man in him, but I assumed that was wishful thinking talking, except that the book never contradicted it.

And just as Donovan's unpleasantness is minimized, so is the physical brutality of slavery.  I guess it's just that everything is downplayed here--everything plays out at a very mild-mannered level, when I was really expecting more of a sense of the drama.  I mean, there are deaths and births and marriages and mourning here, but the tone is all very even and understated. 

I guess I just wanted more from this book.  It wasn't bad; there just wasn't much there.  I'm really surprised that I've written so many words about what was missing.  And now, like I said, I really want to go read True Sisters for a fresh Sandra Dallas fix.  Or maybe reread Alice's Tulips, which I think is much closer to what I wanted The Last Runaway to be.

Look; I summed it up in one sentence after all.


Lianna Williamson said...

Interesting review. I must provide a counterview to your Jordan Catalano example, however! Maybe it's because I was already an adult when MSCL hit the air, but I never got the impression that any other character besides Angela regarded Jordan as deep and interesting. For me, that was always the deliciousness of the Jordan character: we can see so clearly that he really is just a dim, thoughtless, pretty boy, and that Angela is projecting thoughts and feelings onto him that he does not have. And what over-analytical and introspective teen girl hasn't done that? ;)

LibraryHungry said...

I never watched it when I was a teenager, and I always assumed that was what was going on with Jordan Catalano. Then I started watching it as an adult (my husband LOVES the show) and got to the episode where his English teacher is convinced that he's brilliant. I haven't watched the whole series, so maybe I misinterpreted that as how I was supposed to think of him.

Thank goodness I have Donovan as my new baseline of "what the heck do you mean he's deep?"

Kris said...

I didn't think anyone though Donovan was a good man underneath it all. Even Honor, when he said he'd change for her, was pretty skeptical when she really thought about it. I feel that perhaps it was just his hotness that distracts everyone from his awfulness (especially when you're not a target of said awfulness). Also, I've never seen MSCL ever, so the comparison is lost on me :)
One thing I did like was that Honor is so reserved, but at one point someone snaps her out of it by telling her how far escapees have come, and that she isn't the be all end all of the Underground Railroad. She's so insular that it seems to her that she can make or break something, but she realizes that she's just one link in a chain. To me, that was the moment that she realized that because she's not that important in this, she can her husband can indeed move away and find another life, one that suits them both, not just him.
I am also a sucker for how Chevalier writes. I find her very elegant.