Tracy Chevalier tells Helen Brown about new book, The Last Runaway, and her heroine’s passion for rescuing slaves – and sewing.
Tracy Chevalier keeps a cracked, childhood bowl in her cupboard. “Nobody can eat from it,” she says, “except me and my sister. She knows where it is. But I don’t let my husband and son touch it because I know it’s gonna break some day and I don’t want one of them to be the one to break it because they’d feel terrible.” Grey on the outside, yellow inside, the precious bowl inspired a bonnet given to the English, Quaker heroine of her seventh novel when the girl arrives in Ohio in the mid-1850s. “The grey,” says Chevalier, “is dutiful and solid and then the yellow is for stepping forward and doing the right thing.”
The right thing is helping slaves fleeing the antebellum South to find freedom in Canada. Although there was no slavery in Ohio, the Fugitive Slave Act punished any accomplice by exorbitant fines and confiscation of property. And as young Honor Bright discovers when she reaches the Quaker settlement where she’s promised to keep her sparkier sister company, members of this struggling pioneer community do not want to get involved. These weather-beaten farmers have larders to fill for the long, barren winters. And the violent local slave-hunter is always on the prowl. They would prefer Honor to keep her head bowed over her exquisite quilting, and ignore the sounds of people cowering in the woods.
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