Immigrant Tracey Chevalier learns the vital lessons of acceptance


author - Credit: Archant

Nearly 30 years ago, Tracy Chevalier arrived on these shores from America. Now she’s used her experiences as an immigrant in her latest novel

Tracy Chevalier’s seventh novel follows a young English woman emigrating to America voicing often unfavourable impressions of her adopted country.

But nearly three decades ago, it was Chevalier who made the reverse journey, arriving in 80s Britain where “there was no good coffee, the food was terrible and every house seemed to be a dreadful cowboy conversion of a Victorian terrace instead of the purpose-built homes I was used to.”

“I was very aware that Honor was travelling in the opposite direction to me 28 years ago,” says the 50-year-old, settled for many years in – yes, a Victorian terrace – in Dartmouth Park with her partner and teenage son.

“It was an opportunity to explore the experience of being an immigrant and to play around with the differences between the two countries.

“It’s the first novel I’ve written set in the States. I finally felt I’d been away long enough to have distance, yet was a little nervous of making the cast of characters entirely American. Having the main character British kept a toehold on my adopted country.”

Honor Bright is a self-contained, fastidious Quaker, who in 1850 joins her sister Grace on the long trek to Ohio where she is to marry.

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But when Grace dies of fever en route, Honor finds herself alone and virtually friendless in a primitive frontier world where runaway slaves pass through seeking freedom, hotly pursued by hard-hearted bounty hunters in the pay of slave owners.

“Honor comes from a town that has stood for centuries. But, in America at that time, there was little permanence. If things didn’t work out you could pick up and try somewhere else.”

While Quakers were pro-abolitionist, Honor finds few of her kind prepared to risk their safety to help these desperate slaves.

Standing up for beliefs

Chevalier says the story of how she learns to judge a little less and find love, friendship and a voice to stand up for her beliefs is about her “learning to accept Americans and becoming American”.

“Writing it made me remember the sensual things I found different when I first came here – at home the quality of the sunlight has a different tone and saturation and, in winter, the days are shorter here. I grew up with so many squirrels but here people would say, ‘Look a squirrel’, even the oak leaves are different, and instead of being distinct, the seasons just slide into each other with summer ending in mid-August and autumn turning leaves into brown sludge.

“I read a journal published in 1828 by Frances Trollope called the Domestic Manners Of The Americans that tickled me. She found Americans uncouth, said the women walked flat footed, were more independent and only talked about themselves. I built some of that into Honor’s impressions of America.”

Chevalier, who is eager to point out she now “adores London, the different types of people and food and experiences, the feel of layers of history,” grew up in Washington DC and studied English in Oberlin, where the novel is set.

Founded on strong principles of equality, it became a key stop on the ‘underground railroad’, an unofficial chain of support for runaway slaves.

But in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law forced citizens to assist the slave hunters or face arrest – legislation that outraged the general population and helped fuel the abolitionist movement which triggered the civil war.

“Oberlin is incredibly progressive and left-wing and, in Honor’s day, had a sizeable free black population. But the law said that, if their original owner found them, they could be taken back so they were always looking over their shoulder. A slave could be worth up to $1,000 dollars – far more than the poor white people, which fostered resentment.”

Chevalier acknowledges that racial tension continues to be a difficult issue in the States, one that will only be solved by economic and social equality for African Americans.

“It may not have freed that many slaves but the underground railroad was valuable as a concept. It allowed slaves to hope that they might be able to get away. Today, it gives African Americans a feeling of not being completely victimised and white people to hope that their ancestor had a secret closet that hid slaves – everyone wants a part of the positive story in an otherwise bleak tale.”

Although she uses her knowledge lightly, Chevalier famously finds researching her historical novels the most enjoyable aspect of writing.

For her latest, she delved into the art of quilt making – Honor is a crack seamstress – but was already familiar with Quaker practices, having enjoyed Quaker camp in her teens and continued to attend meetings including at Hampstead Friends.

“I like simplicity of it. The fact you don’t have to believe in anything and, if you find your voice, you might talk about the Bible or Afghanistan.

“I also like the silence. I spend all my life, writing, reading and talking and feel the world is too noisy. We don’t set enough time aside to just sit and think.”

For her next book, the author of Girl With A Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures plans a multi-stranded narrative that will feature her first foray into a contemporary world.

“It’s going to be in different sections, different time periods and places and one will be contemporary. With my previous books, the link between the past and present has been more implicit but this will be more explicit.

“Every book requires research, it’s just more obvious in historical contexts. But even in contemporary worlds, you can’t make any assumptions about what you write.

“Unless it’s about living in a Victorian house in London. That I think I can do.”

n The Last Runaway is published by HarperCollins priced £14.99.