In the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850, a controversial bill that included the Fugitive Slave Act, the journey to freedom became increasingly difficult for enslaved people. In Tracy Chevalier’s newest novel, Ohio and its intricate network of Underground Railroad activity provides a rich background for this period.
After her betrothed abandons her to pursue a woman outside the Quaker community, Honor Bright follows her sister Grace to the U.S. During the journey, Grace succumbs to yellow fever and Honor is left struggling to find a place for herself in the household occupied by her sister’s former fiancé and his widowed sister-in-law.
From the moment Honor Bright arrives in the U.S., she observes all that is different between England and America. American robins are larger. Buildings and bridges are made of wood. Roads and cities are spaced differently. There are possums, raccoons, porcupines and fireflies. Honor delights in her first taste of corn on the cob, and she admires the flowers of the dogwood tree. Even the sunlight feels new. Honor views 19th century America through innocently curious eyes, and the journey is as delightful for the reader as it is for her.
Perhaps most central to Honor’s perception of this young nation are American-made quilts which Ohioans refer to as “comforts.” American Quakers prefer appliqué over the patchwork technique of her English village of Dorset, and while at first she finds appliqué distasteful, as she does most things in America, she grows to appreciate the beauty and practicality of this American approach.
Yet this story is no quiet walk in the park. Chevalier has something to say about the moral urgency of abolitionism. The Quakers in the novel face a quandary: if they adhere to their principles, they may be punished by fines or imprisonment. Honor has not been settled long in her new country before she has to decide for herself whether or not to help the refugees she encounters in the Ohio woods: “She had grown up with the understanding that slavery was wrong and must be opposed, but that had been all thoughts and words. Now she must actually do something, though she did not yet know what.”
To complicate matters, a troubled slave hunter named Donovan watches her closely, traversing the woods in his search for escapees. Honor and Donovan share a mutual attraction which she finds difficult to resist. Yet when Honor asks his sister Belle if Donovan could ever change, Chevalier offers her insight into the southern justification for slavery: “I think deep down, most southerners have always known slavery ain’t right, but they built up layers of ideas to justify what they were doin’. Those layers just solidified over the years. Hard to break out of that thinking, to find the guts to say, ‘This is wrong.’”
At times, Chevalier’s explanation of Quaker culture assumes too little knowledge on the part of the reader. Quakers dressed simply, did not drink or curse, did not lie. At other times, her observations are insightful: Honor’s description of how she finds the silence within herself during Meeting is beautifully drawn.
You have probably read stories like this before — about the Underground Railroad: how some people escaped slavery, and how some good people helped them. But what makes this particular story interesting is Honor’s perspective. She’s English. And in some ways, coming from far away helps her see American slavery in simpler terms.
The Last Runaway is a rich, well-researched novel — it’s the story of one young woman becoming an American.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author ofWench.