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

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
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.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform