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The Last Runaway, By Tracy Chevalier

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

Amanda Craig
Friday 01 March 2013 20:00 GMT

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

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