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
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz