You don't read books by Tracy Chevalier for their deeply drawn characters, keen sense of place or plausible endings. You read them because she tells a good -- if somewhat simple -- tale.
"The Last Runaway" is the latest book by the author of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and of the unfortunately overlooked "Falling Angels." It follows sweet, virginal Honor Bright from England to the wild west of 1850 Ohio, where she finds herself compelled to take part in the Underground Railroad.
Honor, who is every inch the modest English Quaker, meets other stereotypical characters: the outlaw who, despite his wicked ways, falls instantly in love with her; the tough frontier woman (named, of course, Belle) who has (of course) a heart of gold; the wise-in-the-ways-of-the-world black railroad "conductor"; the weak husband, etc.
But you keep reading. Because the story clips along at a brisk pace, slowed only by a few interesting plot twists here and there. And because, even though they're paper-thin characters, you want them to succeed. You want Honor to love the outlaw (she does and doesn't, but at least he gets to die holding her hand). You want Belle to live (OK, OK, I won't spoil it). You want to know what happens next.
And that, in my book, is a good enough reason to read.
CONNIE NELSON, Senior editor for lifestyles
When a book is good -- really good -- you don't want it to end. This debut novel is one of those. It is a powerful, redemptive story of an old man in combat with the intractable forces of nature and the relentless sorrows of his own life.
Abel Truman has spent the autumn of his life in the Pacific Northwest in the wilderness of the Olympic Mountains' coastal range. How he got there and why he is leaving are the parameters within which the story unfolds, juxtaposing evenly between the years 1864 and 1889.
Truman was a Confederate soldier, a New Yorker who stumbled south to escape the gruesome loss of his young wife and infant daughter and, when war burst upon the land, enlisted in a North Carolina regiment. The defining moment of his life came in the May 1864 Battle of the Wilderness, a horrendous affair that Lance Weller brings vividly -- shockingly! -- to life in some of the very best writing of this genre we have seen.
The characters who move in and out of Truman's life -- from the runaway slaves who tend his grievous war wounds to the thugs and mountain people he encounters in 1889 -- are so finely crafted, so interesting and so completely convincing that they remain with the reader long after the final page is reluctantly turned.
This is no Currier & Ives battle print put to words. It is the real thing, and it's terrific.
MICHAEL J. BONAFIELD, Night copy editor