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.
While most of us are familiar with Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave known as Moses to many of the people she guided to freedom, there are fewer stories about the Quakers who played an active part in the Underground Railroad. That vast network helped thousands of fugitive slaves escape to the North and to Canada.
Chevalier builds her story around a young woman named Honor Bright, who travels from England to America with her sister. Upon their arrival, 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 womanwho 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 the feelings she harbors for Donovan, who makes sudden appearances throughout the story.
For more than 100 pages one wonders if any slaves, escapees or otherwise, will actually appear. Honor is repulsed by slavery and ponders how she can help end the institution: “Perhaps we should pay a bit more for our cloth,” she suggests to her husband and mother-in-law, “so that cotton growers may use the extra money to pay the slaves, making them workers rather than slaves.” Honor’s mother-in-law responds that in order to dismantle slavery, the slaves should be sent back to Africa.
Finally, on Page 140, Honor spies “the shape of 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,” a hiding place for escaped slaves. When her husband discovers her secret, he reminds her that the Fugitive Slave Act penalizes those who help black people escape.
Torn between her allegiance to her husband and her faith, Honor agrees to discontinue her participation in the Underground Railroad, 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 what she could have conjured up with 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.
McFadden, is the author, most recently, of “Gathering of Waters.”
THE LAST RUNAWAY
By Tracy Chevalier
Dutton. 305 pp. $26.95