Set in the 1850s, The Last Runaway tells the story of Honor Bright, a Quaker woman who emigrates from Dorset to Ohio with her sister, Grace. After a difficult Atlantic crossing Grace contracts a fever and dies, leaving Honor alone. Marrying a fellow Quaker, she settles into life on his farm, but finds herself at odds with his family after she becomes involved in the “Underground Railroad” that helps escaped slaves travel north to Canada.
Tracy Chevalier, whose earlier work includes Girl with a Pearl Earring, is an accomplished historical novelist, and she successfully evokes the texture of life in the antebellum Midwest, with its towns and villages newly “hacked out of the trees”. But the gravity of the subject matter seems to get the better of her: she feels the need to remind us, via didactic asides, that the Underground Railroad was not a significant challenge to the wider horror of American slavery. While this is true, it tends to drain the narrative of any sense of felt drama or suspense, and the result is a well-meaning but rather inert and lifeless novel.