Obie-Penned Novel Grapples With Timeless Issues

Diane Katzenberg Braun

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Not so many years ago, a call went out from The Oberlin Review for sightings of books that featured Oberlin, this being, I suppose, a rarity and/or novelty at the time. Various people wrote in quoting fleeting passages or one sentence that mentioned a very small town in Ohio, producing, I gather, an equally fleeting moment of pride for the reader.

Well, the call has now been answered in full by the prominent place Oberlin assumes in Tracy Chevalier’s, OC ’84, newest historical novel The Last Runaway. I must admit that I have been a fan of Tracy’s through all of her books and always eagerly await the next one.

Most of them are set in Europe, in France or England, which is where I like my historical fiction set, and so I dragged my heels a bit on this one before finally checking it out of my local library. It took only a few pages for me to be swept into the 1850s world of Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman who left her family in Britain to accompany her sister on the voyage to America. And, lo and behold, they are headed for Ohio and a town called Faithwell, a tiny town dwarfed by its neighboring town Oberlin! Oberlin dwarfing any town is real news, and as the story unfolds, it is clear that the reputation of the town has already been established, which would set the stage for the anti-slavery movement.

I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of reading this book for the many Obies who will enjoy it. I do, however, want to say that it has spurred my interest to know more about Oberlin’s history, a history which caused one author to title his book The Town that Started the Civil War. I know that we as alumni are proud of Oberlin’s heritage and with good reason. Knowing its place in our nation’s struggle becomes even more illuminating as we grapple with issues today that still pertain to a time over 150 years ago.

I want to thank and praise Tracy Chevalier for taking on the subject of anti-slavery and the ways in which it challenged those living along the so-called Underground Railroad. As an author she has confronted the important issues of law, religion and conscience. As an alumna she has done our college proud.

–Diane Katzenberg Braun,
OC ’71

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