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Runaway Slaves and a Community's Conscience


Tracy Chevalier spent years researching her famous novel The Girl with a Pearl Earring, a fictionalized backstory of the woman behind the famous painting by Vermeer. She did the same thing for her latest novel, The Last Runaway, a story that takes an outsider’s look at American slavery during the mid-19th century. A young Quaker named Honor Bright sails from England bound for a new life in Ohio. From the moment she boards the ship, her adventure is nothing like she imagined. KUT’s Emily Donahue spoke with Chevalier about her research and the contradictions among Quakers that she found.

This actually makes for a much more interesting, nuanced novel, because it could be so easy just to present Quakers as really wonderful, selfless people, and if you’ve ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there’s a Quaker family in that who help slaves run away, they’re in southern Ohio. They are just as sweet as can be, and you just want to hit them sometimes, you know, give us a little bit of action, a little bit of color and feistiness. And I was able to do that and make the argument much more complicated, because it turns out that Quakers weren’t all clamoring to help runaways.

Emily Donahue is a former grants writer for KUT. She previously served as news director and helped launch KUT’s news department in 2001.