The Last Runaway

I am a huge fan of the books of Tracy Chevalier (she of Girl with a Pearl Earring fame). The thing I love most about them is that I learn about history in the context of a novel. And not just history, but some aspect of history that I knew nothing about. I have loved them all.

Thanks to Son #2 he gave me her latest ‘The last Runaway’ for my birthday recently and what a treat it is. So what did I learn in this book? I learned about the history of quilt making and the different designs; I learned about the first Quakers in America; and I learned about the underground Railroad which helped escaping slaves.

The story sees Honor setting sail from Bristol in 1850 with her sister Grace to a new life in America. Honor’s heart has been broken and she decides to accompany her sister who is going to get married and perhaps to find some adventure and a break with her old life. Honor and her sister are Quakers who live simply and traditionally. Sadly on the journey Grace dies and Honor has to carry on her own. She ends up in Ohio staying with her sister’s intended husband and his family. Ohio is a very different place from England and it takes time for Honor to settle.

The Quaker community oppose slavery in principle but they aren’t always prepared to break the law and help the runaway slaves from the south who pass through on their way to Canada and freedom. Honor struggles to find her place in the community especially when she is found to be helping feed and shelter passing slaves.

In her letters home we learn about Honor’s struggles with a new land and new ways of living. She talks about her quilting and how different the designs are in America. And we hear about the underground which assists the passage of slaves to freedom.

There are lots of strong women in this book which of course I loved. The characters were believable and the description was evocative as ever. 5 stars from me.

Quaking with the Quakers

So you have a Sunday off and where do you go to church? Always a tricky one for clergy. You want to go. You want to receive the Sacrament, if possible. You want to check out what your sisters and brothers are doing out there in the vineyard. One of the difficulties I have here is that I am next door to two parishes where I used to be Rector and it is rather frowned upon to ‘go back’. Especially as they have a new Rector this year. I used to go back to my home parish in Edinburgh but things change and at some point it doesn’t really feel like home again. And if I was a bit braver with driving then I would venture west and try out a certain cathedral there, but that day hasn’t come yet.

quaker-peace-gardenTo digress a moment, one of my little flock has just left us to go to the Quakers. She has always wanted to be a Quaker since she was a teenager and as she is now retired she feels that she can finally do that. (There were a host of other reasons why she couldn’t do it sooner.) We have given her our blessing and she returns once a month when she is on the coffee rota and keeps in touch with old friends. Over a coffee she was explaining to me the preparation process and I heard myself saying, “Can I come with you on Sunday then?” (Well that’s receiving the Sacrament done for, I thought.)

I should perhaps say at this point, that I have worked in the past with many Quakers. When I worked for the Rock Trust with young homeless people we always had a Quaker on our Management Team and they were great contributors. Renowned for their interest in Justice and Peace, I met many in the Voluntary Sector and always had great respect for them. I always intended going to a meeting one Sunday but it just never happened. (Of course, I do know that they do silence rather well and I am not exactly renowned for it.)

And off we set on Sunday morning to the local Quaker Meeting House, which happens to be in a local community centre. As it was the first Sunday in the month my friend told me that the meeting would be slightly different. There would be silence but there would also be a discussion after so there would be an opportunity to talk. However as the group gathered a young woman arrived with two very young children and announced that she was meant to be doing the discussion but hadn’t been able to get anything together so there wouldn’t be one. It was all very relaxed. (How different in our church, I thought. Imagine if I turned up at 10.30am and said I hadn’t had time to do the sermon… Round of applause, perhaps?) There was a low coffee table around which the chairs were set. On the table there were some books about Quakers or Quaker sayings which I was invited to read if the silence got too much. There was also a plant which I took to be the equivalent of an icon or cross – it was our focus for the meeting. We numbered about 9 plus the kids.

The meeting began with no announcement so I nearly missed it (and spoiled it because I was going to ask where the loo was) and suddenly Quakers praywe just lapsed into silence. I was kind of hoping that the Holy Spirit might encourage somebody to ‘witness’ or ‘minister’ or whatever it is they do but sadly She was very quiet herself that day. Some sat with eyes closes, some with eyes open. One man read almost everything on the table. Another woman clutched a small piece of paper with something written on it. The rest of us sat and tried to avoid eye contact. The elderly woman next to me got very quiet and then did some gentle snuffly snoring before going completely silent. So silent, in fact, that I took to checking she was still breathing. The others took it in turns to go and look after the children in the room next door. Near the end the new Evangelical church which also uses the community centre struck up with High Five for Jesus, or at least it sounded like that. It was very jolly. And loud.

An hour later, during which I may have dozed off myself and dreamt or was visited by the Holy Spirit who showed me some birds of prey (? I know, go figure) a woman shook hands with the person next to her and we all joined in and that was it over. (You only shake hands with the person next to you, not like the Peace and go trying it with folk opposite. Oh no.) A wee bit of an anti-climax, I have to say. And then it was coffee time. I expected lots of conversation and interest as to why I was visiting but no. Not one person spoke to me other than to offer me coffee (no decaff available. Who ever heard of Quakers with no decaff?). Now, as you know, I am used to being the centre of attention so it did not sit well with me to be so completely ignored. Perhaps it is not part of their ethos to welcome the stranger. Maybe they don’t do Mission. (How refreshing, not to have to worry about Mission… ) Anyhow, they chatted among themselves about Quakery things and local concerts and Christian Aid. And then we left.

Now one must not make generalisations after only one visit and with only one group… you sense a BUT here, don’t you? No, I shall resist. But I will say that I was surprised that the hour passed quicker than I thought. I did manage some prayer. My observations lead me to believe that most, if not all, Quakers are probably introverts. I missed all the trappings of church to look at : icons, statues, smell of incense, pictures, etc. I missed the liturgy. But I’m glad there are Quaker Meeting Houses for quiet people to go to. Unfortunately I didn’t get to ask lots of questions, like Do you still quake before God or are you more on speaking terms now? Why is nobody wearing a stove-top hat? Why no sacraments? You could do them in silence, if you wanted. Why was your bible the Good News version and have you ever tried something better? (oooh, get her! I’d make a dreadful Quaker.) What’s with the silence anyway? Is it for prayer? Dialogue? Listening? Waiting? How often does the Holy Spirit lead you to speak up?

If you know the answers, please do comment below. I have bought a copy of Quaker Faith and Practice so one day I may get around to reading it myself.

1 star from this mystery worshipper. (If you’d spoken to me you’d have got a whole lot more.)