A new novel by Tracy Chevalier is always a welcome event. She is a natural story-teller and her books are made all the more compelling by her careful drawing on real-life historical events to provide context and texture.
In The Last Runaway, Young Quaker, Honor Bright, leaves a formal, sheltered existence in Dorset, England, to travel with her sister Grace who is migrating to America to marry her fiancé. For Honor, the trip offers the promise of a new life after being jilted by her own fiancé not long before her wedding. In the close-knit Quaker community the well-known slight, coupled with her emotional pain at the rejection, made her life intolerable.
The only things of value are her sewing skills and the quilts she brings with her, memories attached to every stitch: As she writes in a letter home “I have laid the signature quilt across the end of my bed, and at the beginning and end of the day I touch the signatures of all that who are dear to me.
But her new life gets off to a terrible start. Horrendously ill on the crossing, soon after their arrival Grace dies from Yellow Fever and Honor is alone in a brash new country. With “an impossible ocean” that now lay between her and home she chooses to go on alone to join Grace’s fiancé and his widowed sister, Abigail, in the Quaker community close to the isolated town of Oberlin.
Along the way she is taken under the wing of the feisty Belle Mills who runs the milliner’s shop but also comes to the attention of Belle’s estranged brother, Donovan, a determined local slave catcher. Grace finds herself in the middle of the Underground Railway, brave individuals risking jail and forfeiture of their property, by supporting Negro slaves escaping the brutality of the South.
Chevalier makes good use of Honor’s letters home to capture not only her thoughts but also the incredible tyranny of distance that means letters arrive out of sequence so what comfort she gets from them is often overtaken by new events.
Eventually, she marries the dull but worthy Jack Haymaker from the neighbouring farm and sets out to become a good wife. But sympathy and an un-Quakerish sense of rebellion sees her drawn more and more into the fight to save the Negro runaways.
Tracy Chevalier knows a good story when she sees it and has clearly carefully researched what is a fascinating period of American history. In the same way that she has, in the past, drawn inspiration from real-life historical objects like Vermeer’s painting in the Girl with a Pearl Earring, the thread through the Last Runaway is friendship, humanity and a sense of identity.
Unfortunately, the characters surprisingly muted for such a good story. Although Belle is a fabulous literary creation both Donovan and Jack are rather two-dimensional, even Jack’s awful secret is more an aside than a revelation. Honor herself is surprisingly petulant but you can’t help cheer in her corner as she takes her arrival in the New World the start of a complete new life, and one of her choosing.
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier is published by HarperCollin