Online editor's choice: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Farhana Gani

Tracy Chevalier’s seventh novel is a haunting, sweeping tale about endurance, belief, courage and the power of friendship.

Historical fiction at its very best, set during the final years of slavery.

She’s best known for her fictional historical tale about the re-imagined creation of the Dutch painter Vermeer’s iconic masterwork, Girl with a Pearl Earring. The film adaptation, starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johannson, catapulted Chevalier into the spotlight and she has been publishing a new novel every few years since to great fanfare. The Last Runaway transports us back to 1850s America, a decade before the Civil War, and slavery is one of its central themes.

When Bristol-born Quaker Honor Bright’s childhood sweetheart breaks up their relationship to marry outside the faith, she leaves the community behind for a new life with her sister Grace, who is sailing to America to marry her fiancé. Tragedy strikes en route, and Honor finds herself wretchedly alone and vulnerable, depending on the kindness of strangers in the untamed landscape of the Ohio frontier. She’s befriended by the hard-drinking, liberal minded and gutsy Belle Mills, a milliner who rescues slaves. Honor also catches the attention of Belle’s disreputable brother Donovan, a charismatic slave hunter.

Through Belle, Honor becomes involved in the Underground Railroad (the route that fugitive slaves used to escape from the South to freedom in Canada), which creates a moral dilemma: she’s a law-abiding principled Quaker, the Slave Act has decreed it is illegal to assist a runaway slave, and there are heavy penalties. Honor finds herself defiantly grappling with her religion and the challenge of standing up for what she believes in.

Chevalier’s skill lies in her meticulous historical research and her ability to transport her readers to a dark time in American history, and to create a vivid story with page-turning intensity in her signature lucid style.

Farhana Gani is a founding editor of bookanista.com

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Paperback 400 pages  £5.99

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