This is one heck of a story. We loved it. What was your inspiration for it?
I’m American, and a few years ago I happened to be visiting Oberlin College, my old alma mater in Ohio, at the same time as the novelist Toni Morrison. She was there to dedicate a memorial marking the town as an important place in African American history. Oberlin was part of the Underground Railroad – a secret network of people helping runaway slaves escape to freedom during the nineteenth century. Two days later I went to a Quaker Meeting in Washington, DC. As I sat in silence I began thinking about all the Quakers who had worked on the Underground Railroad, and the two things knitted together in my mind. I decided I wanted to write about a modest English Quaker who has to deal with a huge, new, unruly country with very different values from hers. Hence Honor Bright was born.
Do you think your average English girl of today could hack it in 1850s Ohio?
No! Like Honor she would be horrified at the extreme weather – the hurricanes, tornados, thunderstorms, and blizzards, the intense heat and humidity. And all of the animals that seemed to be out to get you: the porcupines with their sharp quills, the skunks with their terrible scent, the poisonous snakes, the huge bears. The diet was corn-based and tedious, the woods constantly needed hacking back, and the Americans were no-nonsense. It was a challenging place.
Honor tries to stop herself helping the runaway slaves, but she just can’t hold back. Is her compassion inspired by Quaker morality or more from something that lies innately within her?
Honor’s compassion is something that I think we all share – a concern for fellow humans. Quaker morality simply reflects that universal urge, and encourages it, whereas other people might suppress it. Honor has been brought up to oppose slavery, but that has been in principle – there were no slaves in Dorset. When she settles in Ohio, she has to figure out how to act on those principles. And once she has started to act, she can’t stop.
The period detail in this book is vivid and seems absolutely authentic. How did you research it?
I had a lot of fun researching The Last Runaway. I knew that part of Ohio from having gone to college there, but I renewed my acquaintance with several trips where I drove around back roads listening to folk music, taking photos, identifying flowers, sniffing the air, and just soaking in the atmosphere. I also visited an Amish farm to get an idea of how a nineteenth-century farm would be run. Quilts are an important part of the book, and besides reading about their history and looking at a lot of them, I learned to make them myself. Now I’m hooked!