The Last Runaway

The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier.  E.P. Dutton, 2013.

I’m always intrigued when characters face tough moral choices, and Chevalier’s latest novel takes us to a time in American history when acting compassionately was highly dangerous. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 required all citizens, on penalty of heavy fines and/or imprisonment, to assist slave hunters in returning slaves to their masters. Imagine you are a young Quaker–an abolitionist and pacifist–living on a farm on the Ohio frontier at that time, as our protagonist is, and runaway slaves are often passing through the woods next to your property. They are hungry, needing shelter and direction to the next safe place, sometimes ill or injured, cold in winter. If you are caught helping them, the resulting fine could cause you to lose your farm. What do you do?
Not only do our protagonist’s values put her on the wrong side of the new law, she is also a recent immigrant from England, stranded due to unforeseen circumstances at the beginning without any relatives or close friends anywhere in America. With sympathy but not sentimentality, Chevalier once again delivers a fine novel with memorable characters in a realistic-feeling historical setting. I’ve now read five of Chevalier’s novels; I really must get to the two that I have missed.

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