Tracy Chevalier

Honor Bright

This is how I imagine the main character, a young English Quaker who emigrates to America in 1850.

Oberlin, Ohio

This town was a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Always a radical place, Oberlin College was the first to admit women and African Americans.

The Sick Room

Many 19th-century American houses had “sick rooms” off the kitchen because someone often had a fever and needed tending. This one is at Hale’s Farm, Ohio.

Desperate measures for desperate times

Henry "Box" Brown was a slave who mailed himself to freedom.

Tracy’s quilt

In researching the novel, I learned how to quilt the way my heroine would have, and made this all by hand.

Quakers have no formal creed.

Their unity is based on shared understanding of the "Inner Light" in each person and a shared practice of silent worship.

The Times (London), 23 Feb 2013

"Chevalier places her heroine at the heart of all this, constructing a synergy between character and plot that makes this novel exquisitely complete. Her narrative framework is as tight and as well thought-out as one of the Quaker quilts that Honor works on..."

When Honor Bright, a young Quaker girl from Dorset, sets sail for America with her sister Grace, she is full of hope for a new life. Grace is on her way to be married; Honor, jilted by her intended, plans to settle alongside her sister’s new family in the burgeoning community of Faithwell.

     The year is 1850. She is leaving the solid, ancient stones of England for a land of hastily constructed wooden houses and harsh contrasts. Harshest of all is the existence of slavery, an abomination that divides families and will soon tear this growing nation apart

      After an agonising crossing, Honor and her sister set foot on dry land in New York, only for Grace to succumb to yellow fever. Honor buries her sister in Hudson, and continues on her own towards a life now fraught with uncertainties.

      Thus, Chevalier introduces the reader to her heroine, painting a picture of Honor in precise, economical language.

       Naive, physically fragile and somewhat prissy, the Honor we meet at the start of her journey is very different to the Honor we leave on the last page, a self-possessed, battled-scarred young woman full of hard-won confidence and inner strength.

       This classic coming-of-age story is mirrored by the historical events of the novel. As Honor grows into a rounded human being, so America takes its first steps towards becoming the land of the free. And as the construction of the railroads links growing communities and opens up the country, so fugitive slaves heading North towards Canada create their own network of stations along the “underground railroad”.

      Chevalier places her heroine at the heart of all this, constructing a synergy between character and plot that makes this novel exquisitely complete. Her narrative framework is as tight and as well thought-out as one of the Quaker quilts that Honor works on, her own English sewing skills symbolically so much more solid and reliable than those of her New World sisters.

       Central to this tapestry is the character of Honor, precisely and beautifully rendered in the tightest of descriptive stitches. Those around her – Belle, her friend, Donovan, Belle’s brother, who hunts slaves for a living and almost steals Honor’s heart, the community of Quakers, Honor’s husband Jack and the individual slaves whom Honor helps along their way to freedom – flow from Honor’s consciousness.

       And since Honor is such a well-rendered character, they are all wonderfully vivid, even when they have only the smallest of parts to play.

       Chevalier’s facility for evocative imagery is often said to be her great strength as a novelist, and there is no shortage of her trademark descriptive detail here, especially strong when conjuring an image of the landscape and climate; but she also has a confidence that transports the reader. There is nothing like the feeling of being in safe hands to make a novel addictively compelling.

       One of the book’s pivotal scenes finds Honor, pregnant and close to term, hiding out in the dead of night in fields of corn under wide open skies. The voice of her pursuer/would-be lover Donovan echoes across the dark and lonely landscape, the familiar lopsided gait of his horse unmistakable as he paces up and down, hunting her and her companion. There is fear in this wilderness, but freedom too, the delicious pleasure of the unfamiliar and the dangerous, and the sense of fulfilment that grows out of confronting both. Ohio may be a treacherous and at times brutal environment, but there is beauty in its cruelty, and hope too.

       As if all this weren’t enough, Chevalier adds a moral dimension to this world of cowboys and fugitives. The principles of the Quaker faith – silence, simplicity, respect for one’s fellow man – allow for a subtle background commentary on the structures of religion as a protection against injustice and uncertainty; equally, she explores the rigidity of belief as a barrier towards progress.

       Oh, and in among all that, she still finds space for a spicy love triangle. All in all, quite a feat. Honor Bright deserves a sequel.

--Sarah Vine

The Last Runaway