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Historical novelist eyes underground railway

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The Last Runaway

By Tracy Chevalier

Dutton, 320 pages, $28.50

After writing bestsellers featuring historical figures such as poet William Blake, British fossil collector Mary Anning and Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, American-born author Tracy Chevalier turns to more humble characters in her latest novel.

In The Last Runaway, the London-based author of Girl with The Pearl Earring turns her attention to those quiet folks who ran the mid-19th century underground railway, a network of secret safe houses for escaped slaves on their way to Canada.

A young English Quaker woman, Honor Bright, recently arrived in the small Quaker community of Faithwell, Ohio, becomes tangled in the clandestine network because of her opposition to slavery. Known for her skills with needle and thread, Honor had packed up her quilts and travelled to America with her sister Grace, already engaged to an Ohio dry goods merchant.

But tragedy quickly befalls the Bright sisters, with Honor violently seasick on their entire voyage, and Grace dying of yellow fever just days after landing on American soil.

As life unravels before her eyes, Honor struggles to comprehend the culture and patterns of her new country. Pushed to marry in order to find a place for herself, Honor can't understand why her new husband's family, also Quakers, won't participate in the underground railroad.

Initially they ignore Honor's clandestine activities, but they soon expressly forbid her to feed and shelter the runaways. Compelled by her Quaker beliefs to speak the truth and help those in need, Honor gets tangled in a web of lies and deceit in order to save escaped slaves on the run.

Although pregnant with her first child, Honor chooses to run away herself rather than defy her convictions. She finds shelter at the home of Belle Mills, the sister of a local slave hunter, who helps the very people her brother seeks to capture by operating a stop on the underground railroad.

Honor picks up a needle to assist Belle in her millinery business, and along the way, learns a few lessons of loyalty, friendship and the necessity of few well-placed stitches in bonnets, and in life.

Chevalier stitches together a compelling piece of commercial fiction of a young woman caught between her principles and her family duty. The only solace Honor finds in her new country is in making quilts, but she realizes quickly that even patchwork is different in America.

Chevalier provides intricate details about the style of quilts Honor is skilled at making, writing long paragraphs about the techniques of the English paper pieced quilts, needle threading and quilting bees, called frolics, and the struggles she has in adapting her quilt-making to local styles.

Readers unfamiliar with the attraction of putting needle to fabric to create a quilt might find the sewing details slightly tedious, but Chevalier is just following her time-tested pattern of explaining her subject matter in detail, whether it is grinding pigment in Girl with the Pearl Earring or identifying fossils in Remarkable Creatures. Winnipeg novelist Joan Thomas released her novel on the early 19th-century fossil hunter, Curiosity, at virtually the same time in 2010.

Quilting metaphorically stitches together the layers of The Last Runaway, the first novel Chevalier has set in her native country.

As Honor grows to appreciate the beauty of American appliqued quilts, which feature fabric shapes sewn onto a large backing, she finds her place in her new country, transforming from a timid newcomer to an American firmly stitched into the landscape and culture of a new country.

Winnipeg journalist Brenda Suderman sews patchwork quilts in her spare time.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 J9

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