Author of the bestselling Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier has set her seventh book entirely in her native United States, for the first time. The novelist, who has lived in Britain for 30 years, has chosen to write about the tumultuous pre-Civil War period.
Honor Bright is a modest, taciturn Quaker woman who emigrates from Britain to the United States with her adventurous sister, Grace, after deep personal disappointment. Her sister is to marry Adam Cox, a British Quaker who has settled in a village in Ohio. After a horrendous ocean voyage, the sisters arrive in the United States, and Grace unexpectedly dies, leaving Honor stranded in a foreign and seemingly inhospitable land, where “flowers look different … even when they have the same name.”
Honor is able to rely on her fine sewing and quilting skills to earn her keep with a small-town milliner, Belle Mills, until her sister’s fiancé can come for her. But Honor is a woman of principle and order, and later finds the living arrangement with Adam and his recently widowed sister-in-law, Abigail, insufferable.
In the end, she has little choice: She must return to England or marry. And the pickings are indeed slim in rural Ohio. In spite of an undeniable attraction to Donovan, a bad-boy slave hunter, Honor marries into an influential Quaker family, but with some reservations.
In 1850, Ohio was a free state. Yet, slave-hunters crisscrossed the state, capturing fugitive slaves for the generous bounties. In addition, whites were prohibited by law from harbouring or protecting runaways. However, an estimated 40,000 slaves made their escape to Canada through Ohio, where there was a network of approximately 700 safe houses, or “depots” as they were known in the Underground Railroad, with the Quakers playing a crucial role.
Honor’s in-laws are abolitionists, but because of past tragedy, they refuse to break the law to help anyone on the run. Honor, nevertheless, finds that she is incapable of refusing assistance to those who appear at the farm, and becomes involved in the Underground Railroad.
The Last Runaway is a fast-paced, satisfying read, with Chevalier continually adding riveting details to keep the narrative rolling. There is some particularly insightful writing about the traditional art of quilt-making, which is on par with Chevalier’s writing on fossils in Remarkable Creatures. In fact, thorough research appears to be the hallmark of her work, lending it greater credibility and depth.
Most impressive is her credible yet subtle flair for signalling the presence of fugitive slaves. I found myself backtracking to find out exactly how she did it. Honor has, Chevalier writes, “an inner barometer that measured the change in the surrounding area, as one senses the air swelling before a thunderstorm. … People’s being gave off a kind of cold heat.”
As in Girl With a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures, the novelist presents strong women characters who are not afraid to take action. While fiction can always use more heroines with agency, I much preferred the plain-spoken, gun-toting Belle Mills to Honor. Honor’s harsh judgment of her new country and its people at times bordered on annoying self-righteousness. She was perhaps not the most flexible candidate for emigration. Nevertheless, I am curious to see how her character will be greeted on the other side of the Atlantic when The Last Runaway is released in Britain in March. And will British readers buy such an American tale?
For anyone interested in the Underground Railroad and the Pre-Civil War era, The Last Runaway is well worth your book-buying buck.
Heather Leighton is a translator and arts reporter/blogger in Montreal.