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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.