Tracy Chevalier's new novel The Last Runaway is a lovely warm bath of a book - pure pleasure in which to immerse yourself and little incentive to leave it. It's the story of a young Quaker woman, Honor Bright, who leaves home and family in Dorset to sail to America in the company of her sister Grace who is to marry an émigré, but when Grace contracts yellow fever and dies, Honor's future is uncertain. Unable to return to England but with no real ties to Ohio where Grace's fiancé lives, Honor must find some sort of place for herself in this foreign community with its strange attitudes and customs.
Ohio is a place of comings and goings, a crossing point for settlers travelling from east to west, and for runaway slaves heading north to Canada and sanctuary. Its transient population numbers members of the Underground Railroad, the chain of people who will help the runaways and harbour them from slave hunters, and despite the jeopardy her actions put her in, Honor's conscience and beliefs mean she gives assistance to the fugitives where she can.
I won't say more about the plot than that, but apart from the story itself, one of the book's charms is Tracy Chevalier's portrayal of Quaker culture, of the lives of Ohio's pioneering farming families, and of the making of quilts - for Honor is a fine needlewoman, and her craft forms a neat line of running stitch throughout the book. I learned a lot through reading the novel, as its social history is fascinating, and I loved its steady pace and easy style, its essential 'quietness' - as befits its Quaker heroine. The small cast of characters makes a tight ensemble of strong contrasts, its dramatic potential realised to the full, and it's a well-rounded book, Honor's story smooth and even and pleasingly resolved. I recommend it thoroughly.
Tracy Chevalier talks about the novel in the current edition of We Love This Book from page 30.