Tracy Chevalier is no stranger to historical fiction. Her breakout hit, Girl With a Pearl Earring, told the story of one of Vermeer’s models in 17th-century Delft. With The Last Runaway, Chevalier, who was born and raised in the District, returns to her American roots, tackling the institution of slavery and the Underground Railroad.
Chevalier builds her story around Honor Bright, who travels from England to America with her sister. The sister dies of a fever, and Honor finds herself bouncing from one Quaker family to the next. She eventually finds employment with the fiery Belle Mills, who owns a millinery shop in Ohio. Belle has a brother named Donovan, who is a slave catcher.
The sexual tension between the egotistical Donovan and the wide-eyed Honor is palpable, but aside from making bonnets, writing letters and wondering about a Negro woman who visits the millinery shop, Honor does little until she moves on to another town. There she meets Jack Haymaker, and after a quick coupling in an open field, they wed. Honor works at being a good wife and Quaker, and she tries but fails to do away with her feelings for Donovan.
For more than 100 pages one wonders whether any slaves, escapees or otherwise, will actually appear. Honor is repulsed by slavery and ponders how she can help end the institution.
Finally, on Page 140, Honor spies a young black woman, barefoot, in a yellow dress. Around her hair she wore a strip of cloth torn from the hem of the dress. It is here that the novel finally starts to generate momentum. Honor turns the family barn into an Underground Railway station. When her husband discovers her secret, he reminds her that the Fugitive Slave Act penalizes those who help blacks escape.
Torn between her allegiance to her husband and her faith, Honor agrees to discontinue her participation but soon finds that she cannot stop. As slaves continue to seek refuge on her farm, Honor, now pregnant, decides she must leave her husband. She steals away with a young female slave.
Chevalier could have used this turn of events to propel the story into a stimulating and thrilling narrative. Imagine a Quaker woman and a slave on the run together. They could have been the antebellum equivalent of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones.
But alas, these characters are woefully underdeveloped. The story reads like a tepid YA novel, and Chevalier seems to have created dialogue for her non-Quaker characters by watching Gone With the Wind too many times.
I am a fan of historical fiction because it entertains and educates, but The Last Runaway accomplishes the latter only in a very superficial way.