Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Last Runaway.
Chevalier sets her novel in 1850s Ohio, a critical link on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to freedom. Newcomer Honor Bright faces the reality of an issue argued in the abstract across the ocean in England. But what seems a simple accounting of a Quakerís trials in America, a girl without close relatives forced to depend upon the family she is to be married into through her sister, Grace, contains as well a sense of the difficult lives shared by females in a world governed by men.
As a Quaker settling in a new country, Honor adapts to the habits of her new congregation, only belatedly understanding Ohioís importance in the operation to move slaves across the Canadian border to freedom. Her situation is tenuous from the start. Her betrothed sister dies soon after their arrival in America, making Honor an awkward addition to a family comprised of her would-be brother-in-law and the newly widowed wife of his brother; the congregation disapproves of the unconventional living arrangements. It is imperative that Honor marry, although her prospective groomís familyóof more prosperous stockóworry that this newcomer is unsuitable. Certainly, she is not able to provide the usual dowry of quilts, hers left behind in quarantine after her sisterís illness.
The family should worry, though not for the problem of Honorís lack of dowry. On the journey after disembarking from the ship, Honor has made the acquaintance of a milliner in a nearby village, Belle Mills. That Belleís brother, Donovan, a slave hunter, takes a special and unwarranted interest in Honor disturbs her new family, especially when Donovanís uncanny tracking skills bring him frequently into Honorís vicinity. While with Belle, Honor notices some anomalies in her friendís behavior, hears the subdued sounds of someone hiding in woodshed or barn, gradually sensing the presence of those fleeing to Canada from the oppression of slavery.
Given Honorís character, it isnít surprising that she should be drawn into complicity with Belle and others like her. The dangerous connections of the network are carefully guarded with the constant risk of exposure, not to mention Donovanís watchful eye. While Honor cannot ever know the real terrors of slavery, her sympathies are readily engaged by those she helps along the way. Chevalierís foray into American history is a simple story but is reinforced by her portrayal of the strength and courage of women living in such rugged conditions, bound together by community and the many ways they provide for the well-being of their families.
Quilting plays a substantial role in Honorís story, almost a character, from the patterns she learned at her motherís side in England to those of the New World, not to mention those stitched by black women, who create their own distinct patterns that tell their stories. In these patterns, history is told, the tiny scraps of cloth linking one generation to another. This is the language of a beloved folk art understood by those who spend quiet hours with their fingers flashing, providing comfort for their loved ones, linking their lives in that time and that place.