In the mid-19th century Ohio was a frontier state, a barely there straggle of settlements on the way to somewhere else, a staging post for pioneers pushing westwards and runaway slaves from the South fleeing north to Canada and freedom. Though Ohio itself was free, slave hunters haunted its trails and towns, tracking down runaways for a bounty. Their authority was strengthened in 1850 by the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it a criminal offence to give food or shelter to runaways, punishable by heavy fines and even imprisonment. Abolitionists dubbed it the ‘Bloodhound Law’ for the dogs that hunted down the fugitives. And still the slaves came, seeking refuge in the state’s network of some seven hundred safe houses, known locally as the Underground Railroad.
It is in this makeshift and uneasy land that Tracy Chevalier has chosen to set The Last Runaway, her seventh novel. An American who has lived in England for the past 28 years, Chevalier has never before written about her native country.