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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?