Rural Reads review #5: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

We had to take February off for Rural Reads this year, which allowed us plenty of time to stew on our latest book: The Last Runaway. Its author, Tracy Chevalier, is probably better known for her other historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, since adapted into a movie.

the-last-runaway-pbSet in the 1850s, The Last Runaway is told from the perspective of young Quaker woman called Honor Bright, who sails with her sister for a new life in Ohio. Billed as a historical novel, the domestic detail and life on a Quaker farm certainly shine through, but we felt the book could have dwelt more on establishing a sense of place, as well as being more adventurous in exploring the issue of slavery at a pivotal point in American history.

After travelling to the United States, it turns out that life in Ohio is far less rosy and significantly less stable than life in the sleepy coastal town Honor and her sister hark from. America is presented as brash, practical and selfish. This is in comparison to the close-knit Quaker communities of England, comfortable with their bedrock of history, tradition and mild climate.

After a tragic turn of events, Honor finds herself having to rely on the kindness of strangers in this strange new land. Already homesick, Honor spends most of the novel in culture shock. She despises both the heat and the snow, the mud, the dust, the architecture and the people of Ohio. The characters are also stereotypically American: strong-willed, independent and outspoken, they strike a sharp contrast to our demure protagonist, whose highest virtue is silence. Eventually, however, she finds her niche in society, first working for a fiery old haberdasher with a slave-catcher for a brother and then, after a tumble in the hay, settling down with a husband on his family’s farm.

Slavery, however, is the only thing which Honor cannot bring herself to normalise, and so she joins the Underground Railroad. The Ohioan Quakers, although opposed to slavery in principle, take a passive resistance to it because of threatened prosecution and violence. Honor, who risks relations with her new family, the law and much else besides, nevertheless helps the slaves that pass through her land.

A view of 1805s Ohio

A view of 1805s Ohio

Although slavery is an underlying theme of the book, we felt it is not explored to any great depth. Slaves are often unseen, taking food left out in the night or hiding in the haberdasher’s shed, and only one or two runaway slaves have a voice in the book. Instead, the overwhelming focus is Honor’s reaction to slavery and how it clashes with her moral framework. Indeed, the group generally agreed that this is a book more about Quakers than it is about slavery. For instance, Chevalier is obviously comfortable and knowledgeable discussing practices such as quilting, sewing, farming, and the meditative nature of Quaker gatherings than about the lived experience of slaves. Personally, I feel that Chevalier struggled to hang an exciting narrative on the monotony of a Quaker woman’s life in 1850s Ohio. She is best when contrasting this monotony with Honor’s intense, internal monologues exploring love, fear and the ethical tug-of-war between her own morals and that of her community and religion.

In conclusion, the group was somewhat divided. This is by no means a bad book, but neither is it an excellent one. It is simply an easy read or, as one of us put it: ‘a good book to read on a sick day.’

Next month’s book is Jim Crace’s Harvest, nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2013. We are meeting at 17:30 in the Museum on April 24th.


Rural Reads Review #4 – Lorna Doone by R.D.Blackmore

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-Ordinator

For the dark winter months of December and January the MERL Book Group ‘Rural Reads’ read Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R.D. Blackmore. Lorna Doone is the perfect ‘rural read’, as living and working in the countryside is intrinsic to the story and is integral to the characters’ essence.

lorna-doone2Written in 1869, Lorna Doone takes place in 1685 and is set in the South West of England (more specifically in Devonshire and Somerset), meaning walkers and enthusiasts can now walk along the notorious Doone valley depicted in the book. It is narrated by the protagonist, John Ridd, and he takes the reader through his story of life during a tumultuous period, including fear of outlaws, farming, civil war and, ultimately, the love shared between himself and Lorna Doone.

John Ridd is a respected farmer and family man who, after the death of his father to Doone outlaws, becomes the master of the farm. After accidentally stumbling into the valley as a young teenager, John and Lorna fall deeply in love, although admittedly it is John who initially falls head over heels. Their love, however, is obstructed by the Doones, the outlaws who terrorise the South West and who cling onto Lorna so that she can become their future queen. The devious Carver Doone, who is the most brutal and deadly of the Doones, has set his eyes and ambitions on Lorna and wishes to marry her, and the story unfolds from here with adventure and passion.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe Lorna Doone to be a most fitting book for Rural Reads and also for MERL because there are countless moments in the book when John discusses or uses an object that we have in our collection. For example, there is the settle which Lorna falls asleep on, a coracle for fishing and even butter pats. Visitors can see all these objects on display in the museum (or on our online catalogue).

Much of Lorna Doone is set in real locations, such as Malmstead in Exmoor.

Much of Lorna Doone is set in real locations, such as Malmstead in Exmoor.

An endearing quality of John Ridd is his love for his family and his animals, and throughout the book you find him saving sheep from thick blankets of snow or caring for his horses as he writes “I loved some horses, and even some cows for that matter.” The importance and love of animals is a common theme throughout the book – one of my favourite chapters is when highwayman Tom Faggus’s horse Winnie leads John to the wounded body of her master. As a group we all particularly enjoyed this particular characteristic of John.

However, we weren’t taken with the character of Lorna Doone, as we found her rather pale compared to other characters and I personally imagined her to be frail with almost translucent skin, lacking in passion. We discussed that Lorna’s character – as described through the eyes of John – was his perfect imagining of a woman. However, she didn’t quite meet our expectations.

The Parish Church of Oare, the real-life location of one of the books very dramatic events..

The Parish Church of Oare, the real-life location of one of the books very dramatic events..

Folklore runs through the core of the novel along with pagan beliefs that people in rural communities held and believed. The oral tradition of storytelling and spreading news is used; Tom the highwayman, for instance, regales the Ridd family with fantastical tales of his adventures and of the wider world which they blindly consume. The theme of folklore and tradition also reminds me of the corn dollies we have in our collection and the folklore which surrounds them.

As a whole we enjoyed Lorna Doone even if some of us didn’t finish it, but we all had aspects of the book that we enjoyed and wanted to share. I would personally recommend the book to everyone because it has romance, war, tragedy, friendship, betrayal and some very witty anecdotes about sheep – what more could you want?


Next month we are reading The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, we are meeting on Thursday 27th February at 5.30pm at MERL and we hope to see you there.

Weekly What’s On – 25th Nov to Dec 1st

What’s on at MERL this week?


Rural reads book club
Thursday 28th November, 5.30-7pm
Free. (£1.50 for tea & cake)
Drop in and join this informal group discussing books on a rural theme. This month the book we’ll be talking about is Trespass by Rose Tremain. As there is no meeting in December, we have already selected Lorna Doone, by R.D.Blackmore as the topic of our first meeting in 2014, on January 30th.

For details visit the Rural Reads page on our website



magic carpetToddler time
Friday 29th November, 10-11am£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities. This week we’ll be using salt dough models using butter stamps and moulds based on items you can see in the Museum.




HP christmas*New* Huntley & Palmers: a Christmas selection
25 Nov 2013- 5 Jan, 2014
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
This seasonal display in the Staircase hall of the Palmers’ former family home, shows off some of the visual delights in the University’s extensive archive of local biscuit manufacturer, Huntley & Palmers




Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Temporary exhibition space
Free, drop in, normal museum opening times
Since 2008 the Museum of English Rural Life has been adding even more objects to its collection, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, in order to represent each decade of the last century. (Find out more in Curator, Isabel Hughes’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. The exhibition will help the Museum to explore how to incorporate more recent histories and representations of the English countryside into its displays as part of the new Our Country Lives project.


Rural reads review #2 – The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis

Rob Davies reviews the book discussed at MERL’s Rural Reads book club this month…

This month we read The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis. The book is comprised of two novels: While Following the Plough and Down to Earth, published as whole in 1973. It is an autobiographical account of Collis’s time working on the land during the Second World War. The need for farm labourers during the war was increased due to an entire generation of men at war, and as Collis was too old to join active service he opted instead to work on the land as part of the land army. Collis writes about his experiences, the people he met and the long days he spent working on the land.

The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Collis

The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis

Before the war Collis worked in an academic environment, this is evident in his references to literature throughout the book and in the way he combines the hard heavy work with beautiful prose. He mentions Thomas Hardy who is perhaps one of our greatest writers of the rural nineteenth century countryside, and who played an important role in how we envisage rural history. His references transfer into the collision between romance and the reality of life in rural England. Collis directly addresses this issue throughout; in a section entitled Sheep he states “There is very little that is romantic about sheep, though for some reason they enter literature and painting in an idyllic manner not bestowed to an equal extant upon other stock, while it will be sometime before the shepherd loses his poetic place.”

An endearing element of the book and a level which I found enjoyable are his descriptions of the people he came across, people very different from the world he was used to. These are the working men and women of the countryside, not to mention the Land Girls. Collis provided the most vivid descriptions of the people he met and worked with. “He was a man in the fifties. His eyes were impressive in their mildness, but his mouth was large and ugly, partly concealed by a stumpy moustache.” For the group this really brought the book to life.

Collis’s anecdotes and descriptions of working on farms are fascinating; they provide a hands-on guide to farming by a beginner, his work and writings stretch from potato picking to the life and work of ants. This is a good read for someone who wants a personal experience of farming during the Second World War; the book isn’t driven by a story but purely by the work.

As a group we had mixed reviews about the book, some members could not warm to Collis whilst others found him utterly amusing. Not everyone completed the book and some found it difficult to engage with, whilst one member read the book at University.

Next month we’re reading Waterland by Graham Swift. See details on our website. Do feel free to pop along and chat about a book we’ve been planning to read since the book group began!

Rural Reads review #1 – Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

MERL’s book club, Rural Reads, has been running for three years. We have read an incredible range of novels, poetry and non-fiction, all with either a rural setting or related to the countryside. In this new feature, Rural Reads regular, Rob Davies, will share his personal views and the group’s reactions to the book they read each month. 

August’s choice of read was Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. It is a short book of fewer than 200 pages that reads well and is a thrilling page turner. Rogue Male tells the story of the anonymous narrator who is on the run from a sinister agency that has imprisoned and tortured him. Having escaped from their clutches, first of all he heads for London but after a close encounter he makes for the remote countryside of Dorset. Finding an area in the countryside that he believes suitable for his survival, he creates a small hovel which he shares with a wild cat, and the two intrepid survivors learn to find solace within each other. The story culminates with a head on battle of attrition between our protagonist and the agent who goes by the name of Quive-Smith –  I won’t tell you the outcome in case you would like to read the book.



It is clear that this book, written in 1939, is a forerunner to the great spy novels of our time, in particular those written by Ian Flemming and John Le Carre. Household served with the intelligence services during the war and has poured his training, maybe even experience, into the novel.

The rural themes of the novel are based around survival and using nature, the countryside and inhabitants of rural communities as a method of survival. It explores the reality of living rough and being exposed to the harsh milieu that is the countryside, removing the reader from the rural idyll which we automatically conjure up in our minds when thinking of the English countryside.

It is fair to say that Rogue Male is quite different from the usual books that cross our laps at MERL’s ‘Rural Reads’ book group! Yes, it is set in the countryside but this is tale of a British gentleman on the run, with nothing but his survival skills and raw human instinct to save him from a persistent hunter. We felt as a group it was very much a “boys own” book but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t like it!

Reviews from the book of the group were varied; we all enjoyed it and thought it was a quick read. However some felt it was claustrophobic and found it difficult to read, not because of the style of writing but due to the intense situation the author was describing. I personally enjoyed the book, again it is not the usual style of book I usually read (but that’s the point of book group). I thought it was an easy page turner, with a tale that will grip you by the hand and drag you along.

The book to read for this month’s meeting on September 26th is The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis (Read a review in The Guardian here). Don’t worry if you haven’t been before, everyone’s welcome and we’ll even offer you a free cup of tea and a biscuit on your first visit if you mention this blog post!

Further details are on our website, where you can also find a full list of all the books we’ve read since the club started in 2010.  All the books were chosen by the group members – often the discussion about what to read next takes just as long as the review discussion, so if you have some ideas about more books to read, just bring along your suggestions and be prepared to argue your corner!

Rural Reads books from the MERL library

Rural Reads books from the MERL library