‘The Last Runaway’

Tracy Chevalier’s Novel on Ohio’s Underground Railroad

Tracy Chevalier’s new novel deals with the Quakers’ extensive work on the Underground Railroad. She talks to Jane Ciabattari.


Perhaps Tracy Chevalier is fated to be best known for her second novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, about the girl in the Vermeer painting, published in 1999. The book sold 4 million copies worldwide, and was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. “Everything else I write gets compared to it,” she says, answering questions from her home in London. “Either it’s too much like it or not enough like it.” The Last Runaway, her vivid and nuanced new novel, which traces the journey of an English Quaker who becomes engaged in the work of the Underground Railroad in Ohio, is a departure of sorts. It’s the first of her nine novels to be set in the U.S. instead of Europe. (Chevalier was born in Washington, D.C., but has lived in London for the past 25 years.)

How were you inspired to write The Last Runaway?

I happened to be visiting Oberlin College when Toni Morrison unveiled a “Bench by the Road” in the town—these are commemorative benches put at places of historical significance for African-Americans. Oberlin was a major stop on the Underground Railroad—one of the last stops before runaway slaves reached Lake Erie, where boats took them to Canada and freedom. At the ceremony and afterward I got to thinking about the Underground Railroad. A few days later I went to a Quaker meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, where I grew up, and at the meeting I began thinking about Quakers and their extensive work as abolitionists and on the Underground Railroad. Those two things came together in my mind and I decided to write about them.

What were the most important elements in researching The Last Runaway?

My research was three-pronged. Nineteenth-century American history, especially the issue of slavery and the run-up to the Civil War, is extremely well documented. I also read and loved two books by English people who visited America in the 1830s and 1840s. Charles Dickens went on a book tour in 1842 and kept notes about his travels. They are hilarious. So is Frances Trollope, who went to open a dress shop in Cincinnati. It failed but she wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans, which was a hit. I was surprised by how many of Dickens’s and Trollope’s observations are still true. For instance, Americans still are very patriotic, and fierce about their independence. They are more practical than English people, less impressed by status, more materialistic. And they eat faster than English people do.

I went to college in Ohio (Oberlin), so I had a store of physical memories, but of course I needed to visit several times to soak it up and make some decisions. I drove around the back roads of Ohio, listening to Punch Brothers and Gillian Welch, pulling over and smelling the air, picking and studying wildflowers, staring at cornfields, and taking photos of barns. I went to some preserved homesteads, walked in virgin forest, talked with some very knowledgeable historians, and poked around a farmer’s barn full of 19th-century equipment. Best of all, I got to walk around an Amish farm with the farm woman explaining how to stack hay and how many chickens a family of 12 kept (70 layers, 100 pullets for eating).

Back home I put up maps and photos and charts and quotes from books all over my study walls. I didn’t find it so hard to re-create Ohio back in London.

Is Honor Bright, your English Quaker character, based on a real person? How about Belle Mills, the milliner who worked on the Underground Railroad? Mrs. Reed, the former slave and conductor on the Underground Railroad? Belle’s brother Donovan, the slave hunter?

All of my characters are made up. Honor Bright started with her name and the idea of being a quiet person who gets so sick on the crossing to America that she knows she can’t go back. The others are made up but with little bits of reality. I was looking through photos of 19th-century Hudson, Ohio, and saw a sign for “Belle Mills, milliner.” Right, I’ll have that, I thought. Mrs. Reed looks a little like a woman I worked for when I was a teenager. Donovan bears a faint physical resemblance to an actor at a summer music theatre I once worked at in Kentucky. But those are just scraps. The flesh came as I wrote.

How did you gather information about the Underground Railroad, which was a clandestine, illegal activity?

Possibly the most influential book was Wilbur Siebert’s The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom, which he published in 1898. He talked to a lot of runaways and people who helped them, so it is an account that feels authentic and authoritative.

Oberlin did have archives, including a lot of information about the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858, in which a runaway slave was snatched from Oberlin by slave hunters, whereupon Oberlin and Wellington citizens snatched him back and spirited him away. They were imprisoned for doing so, and it drew a huge amount of attention nationally, with lots of people incensed about it. Because of that Oberlin was dubbed “the town that started the Civil War.” At the beginning of my research I thought I might write about it, but in the end I chose to set the book eight years earlier, and make it all up.

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When people heard I was researching the Underground Railroad, they’d tell me their grandparents had a house with a secret cupboard where runaways were probably hidden, or that a church down the road had a tower where runaways stayed. I suspect most of those stories are wishful thinking. If all the people who claimed to work on the Underground Railroad really had, the South would have been drained of slaves. Instead, the estimate is that 30,000 slaves escaped over the course of 50 years. Compare that to the 3 million held in slavery in 1860. It was a drop in the bucket. But we sustain it because it is the one feel-good story of that terrible time.

How common was it for Quakers from England to face the abolitionist dilemma during the period before the Civil War?

There weren’t huge numbers of Quakers emigrating in that period. Most had come earlier, in the 17th and 18th centuries. But there were a lot of American Quakers struggling with the issue of slavery. Most early abolitionists were Quakers, and they really pushed that movement forward, forming societies, holding rallies, publishing magazines, boycotting products that had a slave provenance. Many Quakers worked on the Underground Railroad.

I was surprised to learn that up to the mid-18th century some Quakers owned slaves. And in the book I used the idea of the “Negro pew,” where in some Quaker meeting houses black members were expected to sit apart from white people. Though this shocked me, it also made for a more nuanced book. Characters are not all good or all bad, but a more realistic mix.