HarperCollins, £14.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Last Runaway, By Tracy Chevalier

Pioneer America and the fight for abolition meet in a novel as artfully stitched as its quilts

Four years in the writing, Tracy Chevalier's seventh novel is her best since Girl With a Pearl Earring. An intensely visual writer, she has drawn inspiration from sources as diverse as Vermeer's painting, the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Cluny Museum and the Dorset fossils collected by Mary Anning. Here, her heroine is an expert Quaker seamstress called Honor Bright. At the start of the novel, she has emigrated from Bristol with her sister, Mary and a handful of quilts. When Mary dies on the terrible voyage out, Honor is left with nothing but her skill and her faith to sustain her in the New World.

Small, quiet yet possessed of the inner steel necessary to survive, she is a heroine who grows on us. Disappointed in love, she can't go back, so the story is about how she can learn to go forwards in a raw, brutal country where the flowers and birds "look different… even when they have the same name". When her sister's fiancé takes her with him to rural Ohio, it becomes clear she must either marry or return to England. In spite of the mutual attraction between Honor and Donovan, a slave hunter, she finds a husband in Jack Haymaker, but his Quaker family, scarred by their own past, will not countenance her efforts to help runaway slaves on the Underground Railway. So, increasingly pregnant, she continues her efforts in secret until matters come to a climax.

Honor's life in America is an absorbing mixture of the private and the political. It's a testament to Chevalier's taut, lucid style that the two fit into each other with the hypnotic skill of the rosettes sewn by her heroine. Although we are told once too often about how she lines up her needles, the details of colonial life with its long cold winters, its tough beef, and even its different style of quilt-making convey the sense of just how alien it was. Everything is an unending struggle. When Jack proposes, he says no more than "Honor, this corn is ready. Does thee agree?" Told she had an insufficient number of quilts for her dowry, she is soon writing to her relations to ask if they would send those she gave them as parting gifts to appease her hostile and unpleasant mother-in-law.

Her relationship with Donovan adds tension, and also brings her into contact with the strongest character, his half-sister Belle. A tough, funny woman who is rather more immediately engaging than Honor herself, Belle runs a milliner's shop in Wellington. Her view that "most southerners have always known slavery ain't right, but they built up layers of ideas to justify what they were doin… Hard to break out of that thinking, to find the guts to say, 'This is wrong'" is one of the wisest condemnations of racism in the novel. The description of how Belle hides runaways in her wood-pile is hair-raising.

By coming at the evils of slavery from the female angle, Chevalier is both in tune with the zeitgeist, and more subtle than films such as Django Unchained or Lincoln. The Quaker community on both sides of the Atlantic had no hesitation in rejecting slavery – yet the cotton used in their quilts came from slave-farmed plantations, and the Haymakers, unlike the English Friends, suffered the consequences of supporting abolition. As historical fiction this is slightly too predictable, but as a serious novel about a genuine moral dilemma, it is highly recommended.

Amanda Craig's most recent novel is 'Hearts and Minds' (Abacus). Tracy Chevalier will appear at the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival on 10 March

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea