Among historical novelists, the Anglo-American writer Tracy Chevalier has carved out a nifty niche for herself. She culls the centuries for settings in which to drop initially shy but ultimately strong-willed young heroines caught up in social, romantic and/or political entanglements that bring them into conflict with others, in particular those with power over them. Along the way she judiciously sprinkles the results of her careful research into the manners and mores of the epoch in question, allowing readers to learn about the past (especially as it reflects on the present) even as they luxuriate in the somewhat guiltier pleasures of erotic attraction, much of it ill-considered, forbidden or both.
Variations on this winning formula include "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (1999), a best-seller about the creation of a famous painting by Vermeer, along with "Falling Angels" (2001) and "Burning Bright" (2007), both set in her adopted country of England.
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In her mostly absorbing, occasionally disappointing new book, "The Last Runaway," Chevalier is at it again, this time landing back in her native America. Set in Ohio in 1850, the novel follows Honor Bright, an aptly named young Quaker seamstress who accompanies her sister Grace from England to live in the tiny Friends settlement of Faithwell, near Oberlin College (which, by the way, the author attended). En route, however, Grace dies of fever, and Honor soon finds herself in uneasy residence in the rough-hewn home of Grace's intended husband and his recently widowed sister-in-law, neither of whom is particularly welcoming. She also meets a brassy, good-hearted local milliner, a former Kentuckian named Belle Mills, and her mean-spirited brother, Donovan, a bounty hunter who, when he's not leering hungrily at Honor, spends his time pursuing runaway slaves passing through the state on the Underground Railroad.
Eager to escape her untenable domestic arrangements, Honor quickly marries Jack Haymaker, the coltish scion of a nearby farming family. She likes Jack, or at least lusts after him, but also finds his mealy-mouthed position on slavery — he opposes it in theory but also shares the widespread belief that its abolition will result in national economic collapse — unsatisfactory at best. She's also troubled by a second, more confusing attraction to Donovan, who inflames her loins despite his even more onerous politics. (A little too conveniently for Chevalier's thematic purposes, Belle's millinery shop is a regular way station on the Railroad. As she says of her brother, "We gone in different directions, ain't we, even if we both come north.")
Over time, Honor finds herself increasingly helping the runaways, giving them food and advice without the knowledge of Jack and the Haymaker matriarch, Judith.
Along the way, the author ladles out generous, easily digestible dollops of 19th-century Americana and Quaker lore, with a special emphasis on quilt-making, an obsession of the Friends of the day on both sides of the Atlantic. (Honor is quietly contemptuous of American applique quilting designs and stitching techniques, preferring the more painstaking and geometrical British patchwork. "Thee is not in England any longer," the imperious, none-too-tactful Judith points out.)
There's also lengthy discussion of the period's ongoing debates over slavery, including the imminent passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which would compel even Quakers to assist in the catching and repatriation of runaway slaves. To defy the law would risk fines or imprisonment. This leads to some fine scenes of crackling melodrama. "Do what thy husband tells thee," Judith snaps at Honor when she moves to protect a slave from Donovan's abuse. "And do not look at me like that."
It's difficult, however, to avoid a nagging sense of commercial calculation on the part of the author, who seems to sense (rightly or wrongly) that her readers need regular spoonfuls of sex to make the historical and political medicine go down. Honor and Jack's first coupling takes place in a cornfield before they're married, which seems out of character for an otherwise remarkably devout and principled young woman. And Honor's torn-between-two-lovers trope, emphasizing Donovan's bad-boy erotic appeal, is textbook Harlequin romance.
These tactics may have helped earn Chevalier a large and loyal following, but they also feel uncomfortably like pandering. She's a talented writer with commendable ambition to tell stories that matter, that illustrate how the oppressive structures that defined our cultural history were formed, maintained and, in some cases, challenged by heroic young women like Honor. Perhaps she needs to learn, as Honor does, to trust her own "inner light" and to look for it in others, including her readers. If she manages that, she stands a good chance of realizing the full potential of her literary gifts, burning bright.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times