Café Conversation ~ August 25th

Well, that’s the Summer School over for another year.  In some ways I think it was probably the best ever, although it was also the most tiring ever too.  When I came home on Friday evening I was more exhausted than I can remember being in a long time.  Fortunately, I now have a week with almost nothing in the diary, by accident rather than intent, so I can put my feet up and for the first few days, at least, read what I want to rather than what I need to.  I do have a book group meeting to prepare for a week on Monday, but it’s a re-read and I’m not leading the discussion so a quick skim will probably suffice.

I think the reason the Summer School went so well this year was because both the subjects and the themes that the books dealt with were all so closely integrated. Some years the novels have been much more loosely linked, say with just the setting being the same, but the three texts we discussed this year were all to do with the victims of war, justice and narrative truth and so by Friday we were tossing around ideas that came from all of them and conversation got very deep indeed.  It’s going to be a hard act to follow next year.

Now I’m looking forward to getting back to reading through the pile of books that have amassed while I’ve been so singularly focused.  Each of the Summer School novels was part of a series and so I felt obliged to read much more widely than usual in order to be able to fill in necessary background.  I don’t seem to have had a free choice of what I picked up since the middle of July.  I had a trip to Oxford (for Oxford read Blackwells) a couple of weeks ago and came back with Anna Hope’s Expectation and Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game, so both of those are near the top of the list.  I also have a copy of the new Louise Penny Gamache novel, A Better Man, from which, very resolutely, I have been turning my eyes for the past three weeks.  Such fortitude deserves to be rewarded, so I shall probably start there.

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Preparing For Summer School

Tomorrow sees the start of this year’s Summer School and we will be reading and discussing three novels grouped together under the title Paying the Price.  The books, A Whispered Name by William Brodrick, Rennie Airth’s The Reckoning and The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer all clearly share a wartime theme but they have other features in common too and when I kick things off at the start of our first meeting I shall want to draw attention to those as well as pointing out differences in the way in which war is treated. Coincidentally, I came across an essay, The Literary Response to the Second World War by Damon Marcel Decoste, in which he argues that literary responses to the two major conflicts of the Twentieth Century, both those contemporaneous and those written retrospectively, take contrasting approaches.  Put crudely, those which describe the actions of the First World War tend to concentrate on what we might loosely call ‘the pity’ of the situations in which combatants on all sides found themselves, while those which take the Second World War as their subject are more likely to focus on the lack of preparedness of a world which really should have seen it coming.

Of the three books chosen the first, A Whispered Name, is solely concerned with events that took place between 1914 and 1918 and, I think, falls neatly within the parameters of DeCoste’s argument.  Airth’s novel deals with the aftermath of both wars and, with its emphasis on the long term damage suffered by those who fought in either conflict, for me is still focused on the ‘pity’. However, Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is not so neatly pigeonholed. Personally, I don’t feel that the author is taking any particular moral standpoint in the way he writes about the events that overtake his heroine, Marion Sutro.  Perhaps distance has lessened the satirical edge that characterised novels written in the years immediately after World War II. Perhaps others attending the School will think differently.

The concentration on wartime events is not the only feature these three novels share.  Each of the books also draws our attention to what I like to call the uncertainty principle as it applies to narrative.  As Mawer comments

as with so many matters, the full story is complicated and appears different depending on how you look at it.

A narrative is a recounting of events inevitably given a personal spin by the individual  doing the recounting.  Either deliberately or through no fault of their own that person may omit events, misinterpret them or even falsify them.  And that is before we come to the whole question of the influence of choices to do with such things as tense, person and vocabulary choices.  In the first two novels, both of which are generically classified as crime fiction, the main protagonists start from a position of relative ignorance and have to repeatedly attempt to reconstruct a narrative that accurately reflects the original events.  Both emphasise how difficult it is to come to an understanding of what occurred and how the narratives we tell are influenced by what we believe/want to believe the truth is.  Mawer’s book is more concerned with the creation of a narrative as Marion Sutro develops the legend behind which she will hide as an SOE agent in France.  But, if everyone is dissembling and has been trained to do it well, then how do you know who you can trust?  And how easy is it to live according to a personal narrative that bears little resemblance to the truth of who you really are?

I am sure that as the week develops other commonalities will emerge and if I have the time then I will report back.  It might, however, have to be an overall round up at the end of the week.  If any of you know the books and have any points that you would like to make the do leave a comment and I will feed your views (duly acknowledged) into our discussions.

 

Catching Up – Again!

I’m afraid I have been severely negligent of both my own blog and those of all my friends during the past couple of weeks.  Once again I have what I consider to be the excellent, if unwelcome, excuse of further dental surgery.  In the first stage towards correcting the damage that was (necessarily) done back in April, last week I had a bone graft and a pin inserted into my jaw.  This was every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds and not to be recommended as a recreational pastime.  My distress was only added to by the fact that the surgery was scheduled for the week after Wimbledon. I couldn’t even comfort myself by curling up and watching tennis all day long.  What I have been doing instead is blitzing on a re-read of the earlier books in the series from which two of the Summer School novels are taken so that, if necessary, I can fill in on back story.

The Rennie Airth novels are relatively straight forward.  So far I’ve re-read the first two in his series featuring John Madden, River of Darkness and The Blood-Dimmed Tide. In the first, set just after the Great War, Madden is still in the police force, but in the second, ten years on, he has been persuaded by his wife, Helen, to retire and go back to his farming roots, and is only caught up in the investigation when a local girl goes missing.  If memory serves me correctly, in the next two he continues to ‘flirt’ with the service in investigations which span the years on either side of the Second World War.  I chose the fourth book, The Reckoning, for the Summer School because it raises issues to do both with those men who were shot as deserters between 1914 and 1918 and with the women who served in the SOE in the later conflict and thus acted as a bridge between the other two novels.  What I had forgotten, however, is the extent to which Airth is concerned with the terrible psychological damage done to those men who came back from the First World War. In both these early books it is the prime motivating force behind the crimes that are committed, so I shall be interested to see if that is the same in The Dead of Winter when I get round to it at the end of the week.  Sometimes a concentrated re-read like this can throw up links between books that you wouldn’t necessarily notice just reading them as they are published.

William Broderick’s early novels, The Sixth Lamentation and The Gardens of the Dead also share certain characteristics, although in this case it is more to do with structure and style than with thematic content.  Brodrick writes beautiful prose.  I moved from the first of these to a novel by a much better known crime writer and very nearly threw their book away in disgust, so pedestrian did the language seem after The Sixth Lamentation.  From that point of view reading Brodrick is easy, but goodness do you have to keep your wits about you where the intricacies of the plot are concerned. Nothing is straightforward in a Brodrick novel and no one is what they seem on first meeting.  It works well enough in the earlier book, which was highly praised when it first appeared – one of those books that everyone was reading – but I found The Gardens of the The Dead a less satisfactory read when it was published and I felt the same about it this time round.  It may be to do with the fact that other than Father Anselm (the main ‘investigator’) I really couldn’t summon up sufficient interest in any of the characters to care what happened to them. Fortunately, A Whispered Name, complex though it isis even better than The Sixth Lamentation.  I think I had better leave enough time to read it twice, however, if I am going to lead a detailed discussion on it.

The only other book I’ve read over the past couple of weeks has been Tom Rackman’s Costa shortlisted novel, The Italian Teacher.  From the opening chapters you could be forgiven for thinking that the work is about the mid twentieth century artist Bear Bavinsky, so dominating is his presence both in the book and in the life of his wife, Natalie and their son Charles, otherwise known as Pinch, however, what the novel really focuses on is the effect that being Bear’s son has on Pinch, the Italian Teacher of the title.

Bear Bavinsky is a middle rate artist whose works consist of paintings of parts of his numerous muses’ (lovers’/mistresses’) bodies.  He is also a complete monster who believes that he can do whatever he likes, expecting the world to revolve around him regardless of who else is hurt in the process. Why nobody calls him out is beyond me.  He moves from wife to wife, leaving women and children pretty much abandoned around the world with no thought for anyone other than himself.  Even when they are in dire financial need he refuses to help them by selling any of his paintings, which he is determined will only go to museums and art galleries where his greatness can be widely appreciated.  But Bavinsky is no Picasso, and the public institutions don’t particularly want his works.  Their stores are full enough of mediocre art as it is.

The people who suffer most from this are Pinch and his mother, Natalie.  Both of them subjugate their own talents and ambitions to Bear’s demands. Every attempt that Pinch makes to establish himself – as an artist, an academic – his father undermines.  Bear may claim that what he wanted was for his son to push against his criticism and become stronger for it, but in their final confrontation he tells the truth when he shouts:

Do you honestly think I’ll be tagging along to gallery openings of my own kid? Listen to me. Hear this. You work for me. Get it? You always worked for me. … Get this: I win. You hear? I fucking win.

Ultimately, however, Bear does not win and neither does the institution that I take to be the author’s real target, which is the commercial art world itself, with its pretensions and its self-regard.  This was rather apt reading with a new series of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune due to start on Thursday.

Summer School ~ 2019

It’s that time of year again when I begin to prepare for the Summer School that I run each August.  As some of you may remember, this started because I wanted to attend a Summer School but simply couldn’t afford the prices that were being asked.  Our variant, perhaps not as intensive or as academic as some, costs us each the princely sum of £1.50 plus whatever we have to pay for the three books that we study.  A bargain at half the price, I think you’ll agree.

Every year I offer five sets of three novels, each set being loosely linked by a particular theme, and the people who have signed up vote for their favourite.  We’ve only ever had one person pull out because their selection wasn’t chosen – we didn’t invite her back the following year! Books identified we then meet on the Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons of the August week that suits most people best.  Each book is introduced by a different member of the group and each meeting takes place in a different person’s home.  That way no one is put under too much pressure.  This is the ninth year we’ve done this, so we must be getting something right.  In fact last year, we came very close to having to run it twice because so many people wanted to come it was difficult to find living rooms big enough to take us all.

This year’s selection is as follows:

Family Relations
The Paris Wife ~ Paula McLain
Vanessa and her Sister ~ Priya Parmar
The American Wife ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

Vienna Nights
Waiting for Sunrise ~ William Boyd
The Third Man ~ Graham Greene
Mortal Mischief ~ Frank Tallis

Paying the Price
A Whispered Name ~ William Brodrick
The Reckoning ~ Rennie Airth
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky ~ Simon Mawer

Retelling the Tale
The Secret History ~ Donna Tartt
The Song of Achilles ~ Madeline Miller
The King Must Die ~ Mary Renault

Twinned
The Thirteenth Tale ~ Diane Setterfield
Her Fearful Symmetry ~ Audrey Niffenegger
Sisterland ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

Obviously, as I’ve put together the sets of books, they are all ones that I wouldn’t mind re-reading but there are a couple that I really hope might come up this time.  What, I wonder, would you opt for?

 

 

Summer School Review

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280So, the Summer School is over for another year.  This year it was bigger than ever, and I think, more successful too.  It was clear on Friday that none of us wanted to leave and the bookish talk went on long after our normal finishing time. I had to call a halt in the end just so that the person whose house we were meeting in could have her living room back.  The enthusiasm surprised me rather, because two of the titles chosen as part of the theme of books that take place in bookshops didn’t meet with universal approval.

Almost everyone had enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop.  Most of us could remember the time period in which it was set and a number were familiar with the setting. And, it is, of course, superbly written; there isn’t a word out of place nor a word too many. I used Monday’s discussion of the novel to set up what I hoped would become a running theme throughout the week: why do we value books; by what criteria do we account their worth?  This manifests itself in The Bookshop through the question of whether or not to stock Lolita, where the issue would be the quality of the writing.  It was the only time last week when that was the criteria in question.  More pertinent to the way in which our discussion would develop was Mrs Gamart’s attitude towards the Arts in general. Fitzgerald makes it very clear that she wishes to replace the bookshop with an Arts Centre only to add to her own aggrandisement.  The intrinsic worth of the act of creation itself meant nothing to her.

This attitude was developed in respect of books in our second discussion on Sheridan Hay’s novel, The Secret of Lost Things.  This book, set for the most part in The Arcade, a large used bookstore in New York, met with less enthusiasm.  Our general feeling was that it had needed much tighter editing and was to some extent self-indulgent on the part of the writer.  However, it does present an interesting contrast between books loved for their content and those which are valued simply for their rarity, regardless of whether or not they are actually worth reading.  The prices commanded by the volumes in Mr Mitchell’s Rare Books Department when compared with what was being paid in the basement for secondhand review copies of modern novels makes it clear that it is the specific artefact that is valued, not the story that it contains.  Central to the narrative is the possible discovery of a lost work by Herman Melville, a work which had been rejected by his publisher. The price offered for this would pay for my new flat several time over and yet presumably the story itself wasn’t particularly good.  It is the manuscript’s rarity value that attracts attention; that and the fact that the buyer wishes to keep the book completely to himself.

Exclusivity of ownership in relation to pirated ebooks is just one of the themes that we tackled on Friday when we discussed our third novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  I expected that some of the group would be challenged by this book and indeed one or two had found the discussion of Google and the internet difficult to follow, however, it was actually more popular than I had anticipated. Again, we thought that for coherence sake a stronger editorial hand would have been beneficial but it certainly brought our discussion as to what it is about a book that we value into very sharp focus.  For me this novel reinforces something that I realised earlier this year.  A book is the means by which a story is transmitted to a reader, and while I can appreciate a book as a beautiful artefact it is the story that it contains that actually matters to me.  It is the words on the page, however those words and the page are created.  When I realised my move meant that I was going to have to pass eighty percent of my books on to charity shops, my criterion was simple.  If I could get a replacement copy as an ebook then the hard copy could go.

All in all, then, an excellent week of discussion. And already I’ve started to turn my mind towards next year’s topics. With so many current examples, I rather fancy a week discussing novels that are modern day retelling of Homer.  Now there’s a collection of stories that over the centuries have been transmitted in all sorts of different ways.  Any suggestions as to what I might include?

Summer School

IMG_0031One of the things that I have managed to organise over these past months has been this year’s Summer School.  As anyone who has been reading my blog over the years will know, despairing at the cost of literary Summer Schools, I set about establishing my own. Participants are offered a choice of five sets of related books and we then meet on three afternoons during a week in August to discuss the selected novels.  I’ve lost count as to how long we’ve been going now but I think this is either the eighth or the ninth year.  Interest has never waned and I think there is even the possibilty that this year we may have to run it twice; as we meet in people’s homes there is a limit to how many can attend at any one time.  I should know by the end of next week what this year’s books will be but in case you would like to make your own choice here is the list of titles offered.

Family Relations

The Paris Wife ~ Paula McLain

Vanessa and her Sister ~ Priya Parmar

The American Wife ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

 

Vienna Nights

Waiting for Sunrise ~ William Boyd

The Third Man ~ Graham Greene

Mortal Mischief ~ Frank Tallis

 

Paying the Price

A Whispered Name ~ William Brodrick

The Reckoning ~ Rennie Airth

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky ~ Simon Mawer

 

Raiding the Bookshelves

The Bookshop ~ Penelope Fitzgerald 

The Secret of Lost Things ~ Sheridan Hay

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ~ Robin Sloan

 

Twinned

The Thirteenth Tale ~ Diane Setterfield

A Fearful Symmetry ~ Audrey Niffenegger

Sisterland ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

I have a sneaking feeling that I know what the result is going to be, although in a sense it doesn’t matter to me as I put the selections together in the first place and I am hardly likely to pick books I don’t want to re-read myself. They are, of course, all re-reads, you couldn’t put sets together in this way if you didn’t know what the books were about.

So, which three books would you choose if you lived close enough to join in with us?  It will be interesting to see if your selections are the same as those actually involved.

Looking Ahead

ImageI am always envious of those readers who seem to be able to look forward to the coming year and make reading plans which they confidently forecast they are going to be able to carry out successfully.  For me this has always seemed to be the surest route to failure.  It’s a bit like the Great Expectations experience writ large.  As the year goes by so I am repeatedly faced with my inability to live up to the predictions I made with such confidence back at the beginning of January. Nevertheless, I still continue to try and beat the fates by outlining my intentions even if it is only in the broadest possible way.  So here goes for 2016.

At the top of the list go three dozen or so books many of which I don’t yet know the titles of.  These are the books that I’ll need to read for my three book groups and the August Summer School.  January’s selections are Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread,  Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  The first two will be re-reads but the Mitchell is new and I’m excited about that as I really loved The Bone Clocks and have wanted a reason to fit more of his work into the schedule ever since.

Another inescapable list will be books to do with the Shakespeare plays I shall be teaching during the year.  The groups focus on one play a term and this year we are going to be studying The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra.  Lots of blood and violence there then.  Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my A level texts and it will be interesting to come back to them from a very different point of view.  We don’t focus on close readings but rather on how the plays fit into the era in which they were written, their publishing history and the ways in which they have been produced on the stage from Shakespeare’s time to the present.  This year, for at least one of the plays (The Merchant of Venice) there will be an updated novel version available as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project.  Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is due to be published in February.  I have been very sceptical about this enterprise, but having heard Jacobson talk about the book last summer I probably will read it.  Tracy Chevalier is tackling the Othello re-write, but there is no publication date as yet.

The other reading to which I am already committed is that for my course on Dorothy L Sayers.  I still have more than half a dozen of the Peter Wimsey novels to finish as well as all the short stories.  I am not a short story reader and I suspect I shall only tackle those if it becomes obvious that I can’t complete the module without doing so.  The course finishes at Easter but I’m hoping that it will jump start another project I’ve had in mind for some time. I read an inordinate amount of crime fiction but without any real direction or purpose.  What I would like to do is use the essays in The Companion to Crime Fictioas an organising tool to undertake a more deliberate exploration of the genre, be that through a chronological approach or according to sub-genre. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which plots are organised and how they are signalled to the reader.  Has that changed over time?  Are there specific features associated with specific sub-genres or perhaps specific countries of origin?  What I would really like to do is set up another book group to facilitate discussion but whether I would have the time to run a fourth is doubtful.

Over and above these, as it were, social reading commitments there is, of course, my little list.  I’ve already marked down any of my ‘must read’ authors who have books due between now and the middle of the year and as soon as I can I shall put in library reservations for them.  In any one twelve month period the number of novels I get through in this category probably runs to about thirty so, when you add that to what I’ve already outlined, you’re coming very close to the hundred odd books that I get through in a year.  Perhaps then I had better stop at this point or there will be no room for any serendipitous reads that I discover as 2016 goes on.  Will I, I wonder, have the courage to come back in twelve months time and see how well I’ve managed to stick to my forecast?  That, I suspect will depend on how successful I’ve been.

Marmite Books

sks41aSo, the Summer School is now over and this year it threw up some rather unexpected responses.

The book that almost everyone enjoyed was Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I have to say that personally this took me rather by surprise.  I did enjoy it the first time round, but on re-reading I found a much greater depth than I remembered and I was really glad to have had the chance to come back to it.

The book that we had most difficulty with was Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. Quite a number of us had read the novel when it first came out and we all found that we remembered it far more kindly than on second acquaintance we felt it merited.  Because I love chamber music more than any other form of the art, I suspect that I had been seduced by the discussion of the various pieces that the Quartet are playing and hadn’t given enough attention to some seriously weak plotting and character development.  It came as a nasty shock.

However, the book that split us completely was Barbara Trapido’s The Travelling Hornplayer.  This was a complete marmite book: we either loved it or hated it.  There were no half measures.  Those, like myself, who really enjoyed it, all felt so strongly that to a reader we have gone back to the earlier books featuring the same characters.  Those who hated every word are unlikely to do the same.

It isn’t often in my experience that a book divides its readership quite so drastically, but perhaps you know otherwise?  Is there a book you’ve come across that has elicited a similar response?  It would be useful to know before I draw up next year’s book lists.  While some difference of opinion makes for lively discussion that level of disagreement can mean that there is no middle ground on which it is possible to meet.

And The Winner Is………

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Well, all the votes are in and the group of books chosen for this year’s Summer School is ……

Musical Interlude

The Travelling Hornplayer ~ Barbara Trapido

Bel Canto ~ Ann Patchett

An Equal Music ~ Vikram Seth

This wasn’t actually my first choice but it was high on my list and I am really looking forward to having a water tight reason for re-reading three books that I very much enjoyed the first time round and am fairly sure that I will be able to get more out of on a second reading.  For once, I don’t have to lead any of the meetings as I have had enough volunteers to introduce the books to be able to sit back and let other people get on with it, which will be a nice change.

The runner up was the group of books set in Edinburgh and I’ve had requests to put that on next year’s list as well, but the Science Fiction group, Brave New Worlds, wasn’t popular at all.  That’s a shame as I would really have enjoyed discussing those novels and I suspect so would the other members of the School if they hadn’t been frightened by the idea of the genre.  I may try and feed at least two of them into other groups next year, if I can think of something appropriate.

We are meeting rather earlier this year than usual, the second week in August.  So come that week I shall probably be absent from the ether, but I will report back on all the discussions later in the month.  Now I have to go and see if I kept any of the books I need when I was having my great cull.  What do you bet that they all went to the charity shop?

Summer School Book Two: The Last Runaway ~ Tracy Chevalier

imagesIf I’m honest, I have to say that this was the book that I was least looking forward to reading.  I have had a very mixed history with Tracy Chevalier’s work: some I have loved and others I have been really disappointed by.  However, I had had a specific request to include this in the initial list of fifteen and when it turned up in the final three I had to sit back and go along with the majority vote.  Reading The Last Runaway reminded me of one of the things that I find difficult about this author’s work: she is very direct in her message and that lack of subtlety can often lead to her over simplifying the issues that she is addressing.  I thought that was particularly the case in the way she dealt with the suffragette movement in Falling Angels.  Here, however, perhaps because the topics she was covering were less immediately relevant to me, I was aware of this trait without being particularly annoyed by it and consequently ended up enjoying the book much more than I had expected.

The main thrust of the story, which is set in 1850, is to do with a Quaker woman, Honor Bright, who has left England with her sister Grace to live in a small Quaker community in Ohio.  Here Grace is to be married to Adam Cox, an acquaintance who has made the move earlier to be with his brother, already established in the township. However, Grace dies before reaching their destination and Honor is left alone in a country she doesn’t know, with people who are not particularly pleased to see her.

Once there it is difficult for Honor to avoid knowledge of the activities of the Underground Railway, the system set up to help those slaves escaping from the southern plantations to reach safety by crossing the border with Canada. Received wisdom tells us that in many instances it was the Quakers who were instrumental in setting up and maintaining the lines of communication that allowed these people passage through a state which, despite being officially free, was still bound by the federal law forbidding individuals from helping runaways.  What Chevalier does, however, is question whether that was always the case and what happens when abstract religious principles, which dictate a specific course of action, run up against the reality of every day living.  As Honor muses,

[p]erhaps principles were not as strong a motivation as the reality of losing money and land.

Honor, having married into a local farming family, finds herself in conflict with their policy of non-involvement.  Already dismayed by the separate benches for black members in Quaker Meeting Houses, when she discovers runaways hiding in close proximity to the farm she does what she can to help them despite strict instructions to the contrary from her formidable mother-in-law.  Honor is horrified by the family’s refusal to help but, as we discover, the Haymaker family have previously paid a very heavy price for assisting runaways and their decisions are being made in a frame of reference that Honor cannot even begin to understand.

This led to an interesting discussion about how easy it is to advocate a set of rigid principles when you are unlikely to be called upon to enact them in your every day life.  Being a Quaker has posed no problems for Honor in her family home of Dorset because it has asked nothing substantial of her.  What she realises when she finds herself in a very different environment is that if

an abstract principle [becomes] entangled with daily life it [loses] its clarity and [becomes] compromised and weakened.

It would be very easy to condemn the Haymakers for their attitude towards the runaways and their refusal to live up to the religious principles they avow, but we have not lost a father and a home to the actions of evil-minded bigots.  None of us can know how we would act in a similar situation because we have never found ourselves walking in the Haymakers’ shoes.  Yes, we would all like to think that we would do as Honor does and continue to find ways of assisting those trying to make it to Lake Erie, but we cannot know if that is how we would behave until we have been tried.

The other aspect of the book that raised some discussion was the subject of colonisation.

‘Even in Oberlin [the negroes] are a separate community, and those who have run away are not entirely safe.  That is why we support colonisation.  It seems a better option.’

‘What is colonisation?’

‘Negroes come originally from Africa, and they would be happier living back there, in a new country of their own.’

For some of us this gave pause for thought because it is too close to opinions we hear expressed on the streets of our own cities today.  And Mrs Reed, a runaway who has settled in Oberlin, has the obvious answer,

‘Why would I want to go to Africa?  I was born in Virginia.  So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents.  I’m American.  I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen.  If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well I’m here.  This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

The Last Runaway proved to be a reminder to us all that there are rarely easy answers to issues where the people involved perceive their livelihood and welfare as being threatened and that when any one of us finds ourselves in such a position the principles we thought we so firmly held are likely to be tested.  It may be set in the Ohio of 1850, but the themes it deals with are very pertinent in Britain today.