Sewing Like Honor

The Last Runaway

I know that I’m suggestible.  So lately, I’ve been sewing.

There was a basket of clean laundry set in the dining room; after dinner last night I pulled it up on to a chair and started folding.  Several T-shirts belonged to my son, James, who is 25 and has high-functioning autism.  He wouldn’t care if his clothes were crumpled and worn, as long as they were clean, but trying to smooth out the T’s, with their set-in wrinkles, I realized several had torn pockets or holes.

So I dragged an armload of the shirts back downstairs, plugged in the iron, and neatened those suckers up.  Then I took them to the family room, pulled out the wooden sewing chest my mother gave me, and loaded up needles with matching thread. James and I watched some TV–we started ‘Rock of Ages,’ which he deemed too racy to watch with one’s mother; we switched over to ‘Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives’ on NetFlicks.  As we watched Guy Fieri jubilantly nosh and socialize, I stitched up all the shirts, mended a washcloth that was torn, and knit half a baby bootie.

Before bed, I folded the shirts into neat squares–the washcloth, likewise,–and put them away. Oh, it felt good–productive and satisfying.

It’s no coincidence that I’m reading Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway.

I hadn’t read any of Chevalier’s books before–missed Girl With a Pearl Earring completely–so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  My AAUW group was reading this book, though; a sweet member insisted that I’d like it, and so I brought it home. As happens, by the time I got to it, the book discussion was over, but I felt honor-bound to read it.

I discovered it’s pretty good.

It’s the story of a timid young English Quaker woman, Honor Bright, who accompanies her sister, Grace–a spunky, adventurous type,–on her trip to meet her fiancé in Ohio.  It’s the mid-1800’s. Sea travel is still iffy, and Honor discovers it’s not something she’s made for.  It’s a mild crossing, but she’s utterly sick for the whole month the ship’s asea.  When they land in New York City, Honor knows that she will never again put herself through that kind of ordeal. She’s in the States for good.

She and Grace make their way to Ohio.  There, Grace sickens and dies.

Honor’s story changes to one of a helpless young woman adrift in a foreign land.

Her sister’s intended helps her a bit; Honor makes friends on her own, and she attracts a young man who makes her catch her breath.  They marry, and Honor has a home in a land that seems weird, brash, and often unforgiving.

There are two strands to follow in the book–quilts and runaway slaves, and Honor becomes expert in both.  Her stitching has always been amazing; she is a two-handed seamstress; she works twice as quickly and twice as well as her new companions.  She misses the English piecework; her American family and friends all like appliqué, which is quicker, brighter, easier.

Honor is, whenever she can be, sewing. She sews clothes and hats and baby things; but her first, best love is the making of a quilt.

And her passion becomes helping slaves on the run.  They come through the woods to the farm. Thinking herself unobserved, she hides food and provides blankets.  She finds, after the long winter, that her secret was well-known. Only because Jack, her husband, dotes on her was she allowed to succor and harbor the terrified black runners.  In the spring, as her pregnancy becomes obvious, her mother-in-law calls a halt.

*****

And that’s where I am in the book, which I look forward to every night, staying up long past time to turn out the light to read about Honor’s resourcefulness. She inspires me; I love the thought of a thrifty life, a life where waste is minimal and creative use of things on hand de rigeur.  It drives me to the sewing chest and the knitting basket.  I take out a folded sheet of paper and draw a little plan for an easy, hand-sewn quilt.

I love Honor’s bravery and integrity. It strikes me that ‘integrity’ is where we get the word ‘grit.’ Once a timid young English girl, Honor grows into something much sterner, much finer.

And I plan a trip.  Honor is three miles away from Oberlin; I am about 75 miles from that college town with its deep roots in American history. It was the first US college, I believe, to admit black students and the first college to admit women.  I know that now it is a place where much of the food served in the cafeterias is grown on campus–and the rest sourced locally. How is it I have never visited?

Tonight, I’ll do a little research, and we’ll plan a weekend meander to Oberlin.  By then, I’ll have finished The Last Runaway; I can trace some of Honor’s steps.  I’ll go shopping for bookstores and great little cafes, and I’ll explore the library–a town like that must have a great library.

Something to look forward to.  But now, I’ll follow Honor’s lead, and get back to my needlework.

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