HarperCollins £14.99

Review: The Last Runaway, By Tracy Chevalier

A rich and perceptive culture-clash novel offers an outsider's view of 1850s America – its strange manners, strange politics, even its strange fauna

When, armed only with the Bible, Mansfield Park, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit and a set of quilts, Honor Bright decides to accompany her sister Grace from Bridport, Dorset to Ohio (Grace is travelling there to marry her fiancé Adam Cox; Honor is fleeing a broken engagement and a broken heart) she leaves behind a loving extended family as well as a tightly knit Quaker community.

Her first stumbling block is the journey itself: as soon as they set sail from Bristol, she's overcome by a nausea that keeps her in its dismal grip all the way across the Atlantic. From the start, both seasick and sick with nerves, Honor's commitment to a new life in 1850s America is fraught with her own uncertainties and blinkered judgments, and her body's initial reaction proves to be just as unyielding.

"'Look at the horizon,' a sailor commanded one day after witnessing her dry heaves. 'Get up the bow and keep your eyes on where we headed. Pay no mind to the humping and bumping, the rocking and the rolling. Watch what don't move. Then your stomach'll settle.'" There's some element of this advice that Honor seems to incorporate, attempting a steady, meditative approach as she absorbs one new shock after another, including her sister's untimely death and invasive, unsettling interactions with a rough-and-ready slave hunter.

But Honor also brings an inbuilt resistance to her new home, an approach that is both aggravating and revealing. Everything is aggressively different, she reflects on seeing a covered wooden bridge for the first time: "The bridges crossing streams and rivers from her childhood were stone and humped. Honor had not thought that something as fundamental as a bridge would be so different in America … [The trees] too were unfamiliar. Even trees like oaks and chestnuts she knew from before seemed different, the oak leaves more pointed and less curly, the chestnut leaves not in the fanned cluster she was accustomed to. The undergrowth looked foreign, dense and primitive, designed to keep people out."

Tracy Chevalier has woven a rich tapestry here, setting her protagonist at the crossroads of a time explosive with issues surrounding slavery, rapidly changing industry, America's pioneering spirit and its racial divide. (In a Philadelphia Quaker Meeting, to her great surprise and dismay, Honor is taken aback by the blatant racism within the Friends' community.)

Chevalier always writes to terrific visual effect, incorporating her extensive research seamlessly into her novels, and this one's no different, whether she's conjuring a colourful milliner's shop in frontier America, a social quilting circle, a creaking, slow, horse-drawn wagon ride deep in the Ohio woods, or the sensuousness of a cornfield on a blazingly hot summer's day. In a way, Honor is the perfect observer, noticing the sense of impermanence of America's early settlements, the noisiness of the insects, the extreme fluctuations of the seasons and the focused, no-nonsense approach of the settlers – which she gradually comes to recognise as an admirable quality of self-sufficiency: "They do not practise the art of conversation in quite the way the English do," Honor notes in a letter to her parents, "but are straightforward to the point of bluntness. Perhaps this will change when I have got to know the community better."

Ultimately, however, it is two secondary characters – Mrs Reed, a free black woman and the milliner Belle Mills – and Honor's relationship with each of them that lends imaginative fire to the story. Belle, especially, is a perpetual breath of fresh air, who kills a copperhead snake in her yard as easily as she sews a bunch of decorative cherries on to that special hat. She's an astute businesswoman ("It don't do for me to wear anything fancy in the store …. Don't want to compete with my customers – you're the ones got to look good. I wear my hats outside, for advertising.") who's given to exercising that American bluntness that Honour noted in no uncertain terms: "Jesus H Christ, I'm glad I'm not a Quaker. No whisky, no colour, no feathers, no lies. What is there left?" she asks, and then bursts out laughing when Honor points out quietly that there's "No swearing, either."

In 2009, Chevalier published Remarkable Creatures, an extraordinary novel that captured with aston- ishing clarity and accuracy the rhythms and pacing of a friendship between two women. Here, too, the most exciting glimmers of life come from Honor's fledgling friendships with two unusual, world-weary and courageous women, and it is that sustenance that encourages her, in small increments – flirting with a man over a firefly, allowing herself to be captivated by a hummingbird, succumbing to the delicious joy of the first corn of the season – to begin to embrace her new home.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions