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A Story Of Slavery, Loss And Hope In 1850s Ohio

Jan 1, 2013
Originally published on January 8, 2013 1:19 pm

In the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850, a controversial bill that included the Fugitive Slave Act, the journey to freedom became increasingly difficult for enslaved people. In Tracy Chevalier's newest novel, Ohio and its intricate network of Underground Railroad activity provides a rich background for this period.

After her betrothed abandons her to pursue a woman outside the Quaker community, Honor Bright follows her sister Grace to the U.S. During the journey, Grace succumbs to yellow fever, and Honor is left struggling to find a place for herself in the household occupied by her sister's former fiance and his widowed sister-in-law.

From the moment Honor Bright arrives in the U.S., she observes all that is different between England and America. American robins are larger. Buildings and bridges are made of wood. Roads and cities are spaced differently. There are possums, raccoons, porcupines and fireflies. Honor delights in her first taste of corn on the cob, and she admires the flowers of the dogwood tree. Even the sunlight feels new. Honor views 19th century America through innocently curious eyes, and the journey is as delightful for the reader as it is for her.

Perhaps most central to Honor's perception of this young nation are American-made quilts, which Ohioans refer to as "comforts." American Quakers prefer applique over the patchwork technique of her English village of Dorset, and while at first she finds applique distasteful, as she does most things in America, she grows to appreciate the beauty and practicality of this American approach.

Yet this story is no quiet walk in the park. Chevalier has something to say about the moral urgency of abolitionism. The Quakers in the novel face a quandary: If they adhere to their principles, they may be punished by fines or imprisonment. Honor has not been settled long in her new country before she has to decide for herself whether or not to help the refugees she encounters in the Ohio woods: "She had grown up with the understanding that slavery was wrong and must be opposed, but that had been all thoughts and words. Now she must actually do something, though she did not yet know what."

To complicate matters, a troubled slave hunter named Donovan watches her closely, traversing the woods in his search for escapees. Honor and Donovan share a mutual attraction, which she finds difficult to resist. Yet when Honor asks his sister Belle if Donovan could ever change, Chevalier offers her insight into the Southern justification for slavery: "I think deep down, most Southerners have always known slavery ain't right, but they built up layers of ideas to justify what they were doin'. Those layers just solidified over the years. Hard to break out of that thinking, to find the guts to say, 'This is wrong.' "

At times, Chevalier's explanation of Quaker culture assumes too little knowledge on the part of the reader. Quakers dressed simply, did not drink or curse, did not lie. At other times, her observations are insightful: Honor's description of how she finds the silence within herself during Meeting is beautifully drawn.

You have probably read stories like this before — about the Underground Railroad: how some people escaped slavery, and how some good people helped them. But what makes this particular story interesting is Honor's perspective. She's English. And in some ways, coming from far away helps her see American slavery in simpler terms.

The Last Runaway is a rich, well-researched novel — it's the story of one young woman becoming an American.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author of Wench.

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Tracy Chevalier, best known for writing "Girl with a Pearl Earring," has a new book out set in Ohio. It takes place as the Compromise of 1850 is about to pass. That, among other things, included crushing new controls on runaway slaves caught even in non-slave states.

Here's Dolen Perkins-Valdez with our review of the "The Last Runaway."

DOLEN PERKINS-VALDEZ, BYLINE: It's the story of the Underground Railroad experienced by a white Quaker woman whose name is Honor. Honor Bright grows up in England, but her fiance abandons her, and she decides to make the trip to the U.S. Everything is different here. The robins are bigger, roads and cities are spaced out. She tries corn on the cob and sees her first firefly. It's just as delightful for the reader as it is for her. But the story turns out to be much darker.

In America, Quakers face a tough choice. They're against slavery. But after the compromise, helping runaways could mean fines and jail time. For our heroine, it doesn't take much time before she's faced with the same dilemma. Should she protect the escapees running through the Ohio woods? You've heard this story before: the Underground Railroad, some people escaping slavery, some good people helping them. But what makes this story interesting is Honor's perspective. She's English. And in some ways, coming from far away helps her see American slavery in simpler terms.

"The Last Runaway" is a rich, well-researched novel. It's the story of one young woman becoming an American.

CORNISH: That was Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Her latest book "Wench" also deals with slavery and is set in Ohio. The book she reviewed is "The Last Runaway." You can find more reviews at our website, nprbooks.org. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter, @nprbooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.