16 Must-Read Books for January 2013

A love song for a divided country, an abandoned girl's hunt for home...and more!
The Last Runaway

The Last Runaway

320 pages; Dutton
Tracy Chevalier calls her first historical novel set in the United States "my love letter home." Actually, Chevalier, who lives in London and is best known for the international best-seller Girl with a Pearl Earring, has accomplished something less sweetly sentimental but even more emotionally riveting: The Last Runaway portrays a pre–Civil War America full of contradictions, personified by a heroine facing the kinds of major moral challenges in her life that are playing out on a grand scale in her adopted country. Honor Bright ends up stranded in 1850 Ohio when the adventurous sister she has accompanied from England dies soon after their arrival. She finds everything in the Midwest foreign—from the patterns used in quilting to the "quality of the sunlight...yellower and fiercer." Then there is the specter of slavery, which, as a Quaker, Honor is horrified by. In spite of this, she is drawn to a slave hunter whose sister hides fugitives via the Underground Railroad. But after finally settling down with a farmer with whom she expects to lead a safe, simple life, Honor herself becomes involved in aiding fleeing slaves, which poses increasingly complicated ethical choices. The protagonist's vividly human individuality makes the author's pitch-perfect set piece about our nation's (ongoing) growing pains irresistible.
— Liza Nelson