Tracy Chevalier, of Girl with a Pearl Earring fame, shifts her focus from Europe and enigmatic works of art to 1850s Ohio and the Underground Railroad in her latest, The Last Runaway. Jilted by her fiancé, quiet Quaker Honor Bright departs safe England for untamed America, and learns there that living according to one’s principles is easier said than done.
Left suddenly alone on her new continent after a family tragedy, Honor seeks comfort in the meditative routine of her beloved quilting. Her talent for stitching gains her an unlikely friend: the whiskey-swilling, cursing Kentucky export Belle Mills, who, to Honor’s shock, is hiding runaway slaves. Opposed to slavery like other Quakers, Honor silently approves of Belle’s actions, but when she begins helping slaves herself, she is met with resistance from her new community of Friends—despite their passionate abolitionist speeches. Further complicating matters are Honor’s first stirrings of lust: Belle’s brother, Donovan, is coarse, violent and, worst of all, a slave hunter—yet Honor can’t get him out of her head, even as she’s drawn to red-blooded Quaker farmer Jack Haymaker. As Honor moves deeper into the risky world of aiding slaves, she is confronted with several difficult choices.
Evoking 19th-century Ohio life with a quiet lushness, Chevalier seamlessly seeds vivid period details into her writing. Though minor bits test patience—Honor can supposedly hear an eye blink—the conflicts of this young woman’s head and heart will pull readers to the last page. Chevalier questions the difference between bravery and foolishness and explores whether ideology should displace family ties, and her characters are drawn with satisfying shades of gray. Having lived in England for nearly 30 years, the American-born Chevalier calls this novel her “love letter home.” Warm and thoughtful, The Last Runaway gratifyingly probes America’s growing pains.