Fans of works such as Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn have a new story to enjoy, and the lucky few who crowded into the Flood Meeting Room at the Hudson Library and Historical Society last month were able to hear the words on the pages being read by the woman who actually penned them.
Author Tracy Chevalier’s latest book, The Last Runaway, was released in January and focuses on the adjustment of an English Quaker who moves to rural Ohio in the 1850s and has to learn to adapt to her new life and all it brings, including becoming involved in the Underground Railroad. Emigrating to the States because her sister came here, the heroine of the book, Honor Bright, finds herself alone in a new world when, in the first ten pages of the novel her sister dies, leaving Honor to adjust to the customs and oddities of what must now become her home. (Don’t worry, according to Chevalier, knowing that tidbit in advance is not a spoiler as “it’s not giving the storyline away to say that!”) Another tidbit about this story is that, although the book may not be set in Hudson, the small town does play a large role in the backdrop of the tale overall, which is why Chevalier came back to the area to speak about the finished product. In addition to being the place where Honor’s sister dies, the town serves as an early gateway for the main character upon entering Ohio and several important events happen in Hudson that shape the way the book will turn out. The first passage read to the audience gave listeners a taste of how some aspects of the story “were inspired by the kindness of Hudson” as a travel-weary Honor and her ill sister, Grace, disembark the stage coach (rather are unceremoniously dumped by the coachmen) at the Mansion House Hotel in Hudson and are immediately taken in by the innkeepers. It is only one night later that Grace passes away from yellow fever and Honor is left to make the remaining forty miles of the journey to their original destination, a fictional town called Faithwell, on her own.
Chevalier used her own experiences traveling through the farmlands of Ohio to guide Honor’s description of her commute to Faithwell. Especially prevalent are the little aspects of the area that one might not usually notice, but through the eyes of a foreigner they become seemingly quite fascinating such as the amount of squirrels running through the woods or the difference in styles of bridges between Ohio and England: covered and wood in Ohio, stone and humped in England. To Honor, it is amazing how something so fundamental could be so different! Caught up in her awe, and unease, of her new surroundings, Honor reminds herself that “she mustn’t compare Ohio to England – it wouldn’t help.”
As for the author’s own journey to the area, Chevalier credits the persuasiveness of Gwen Mayer, the Library’s archivist, with bringing her to Hudson. In 2009, while visiting her alma mater, Oberlin College, Chevalier witnessed Toni Morrison dedicating a park bench in remembrance of the Underground Railroad which inspired her to explore the state’s involvement in the cause. Hudson has a rich history in that regard, but Chevalier admits that the history here is SO rich that it would be great for nonfiction, but leaves little room for a novelist to take creative license, which is why Faithwell was eventually created as the setting.
Another remnant of Hudson that made it into the book is the character of Belle Mills, a milliner, whose name was taken right out of Hudson history. “It just seemed like a really sassy Hudson name,” Chevalier explained. Since Hudson would ultimately not be the central location, however, in order to keep Belle in the book more, Chevalier moved her character from Hudson to Wellington so Belle could help Honor throughout her journey.
The Last Runaway is Tracy Chevalier’s first book set in the States – all others have been in Europe – but it won’t be her last. Her current work-in-progress is also set in Ohio and she gave the audience a sneak preview by mentioning it will be “about trees, our emotional attachment to trees, and why we move them. It will probably be set in both England and Ohio, namely the Great Black Swamp.” In fact, the author was planning to embark on a research trip the very next day to the Swamp for the inspiration that will turn into a war of apple trees.
Concluding her talk, Chevalier shared her connection to her writing process including the fact that she had specifically chosen her shirt for the lecture because its colors – gray and yellow – were reminiscent of a bonnet that plays an important role in the The Last Runaway. Further, she revealed the color scheme of the bonnet was based on a cereal bowl from her childhood that she still has on a special shelf at home that only she and her sister are allowed to use. Also mentioned was the inclusion of quilting having a prominent place in the story. Chevalier traditionally likes to give her characters something to do with their hands whether it be quilting, fossil hunting or painting, and she learns a bit about how to do each herself so she can incorporate that knowledge into the story and make it feel more authentic. She explained how back then quilts meant many things as the craft was one of few creative outlets women had at that time. In addition to having practical purposes, quilting offered a way to create your own layers of personal history. Another way Chevalier adds a personal touch to her work is through those research trips. For this book, in addition to taking the routes her characters would take, she described her visits to farms in Ohio and the sensory overload of visiting an Amish farm in particular. In reference to the peace acquired from attending Quaker “silence” meetings, she reflected that “the world has gotten really noisy.”
The next time you have a few moments of quiet time, tuck away all the modern electronic gadgets and worries of the world and pick up a copy of Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and follow along with how Honor Bright lived as she explores Ohio and its history!