By: Robert Morgan
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication Date: 4/5/2016
My Rating: 5 Stars
On a moonless night in the spring of 1851, a young slave makes a bid for freedom with only the North Star to guide him. Bestselling novelist and historian Robert Morgan returns with a stunning new work of historical fiction.
In Chasing the North Star, Morgan brings to full and vivid life the story of a runaway slave named Jonah Williams who, on his eighteenth birthday, flees the South Carolina plantation on which he was born with only a few stolen coins, a knife, and the clothes on his back. No shoes, no map, no clear idea of where to head, except north, hiding during the day and running through the night. Although Jonah eludes the men sent to capture him, the one person who never loses his trail is Angel, a slave girl he meets in North Carolina, a young woman with a remarkably free spirit who sees Jonah as her way to freedom and sets out to follow him.
Morgan's clear, plain prose brings an urgency and authenticity to this spellbinding story of two teenage runaways and their terrifying world. Filled with adventure and romance, Chasing the North Star is storytelling of the highest caliber.
A special thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Storyteller, Robert Morgan, delivers a lively coming-of-age historical fiction of humanity, CHASING THE NORTH STAR, an entertaining, and poignant heartfelt journey of two Southern runaway slaves in the 1850s, forced to leave their families behind for survival--a better life.
A remarkable adventure through the wilderness with newfound courage to hope and freedom, as they follow the North Star. From loss, and tragedy to joy and love—rich in character and history, assured to captivate readers of all ages.
Jonah was born during a terrible storm, of slaves in a cabin behind The Williams Plantation in the foothills of South Carolina, north of Greenville, just below the cotton line. He arrived on the full moon. His granny always said as a full moon baby, he would be “darting away” running from one thing, and then to another. No more dependable than Jonah in the Holy Bible.
He had been lucky because Mrs. Williams picked him out as a boy to serve her and her children. He was young enough to be Mr. Williams’ own child. She was from Columbia and liked to wear fancy dresses and gives parties. Her children were Betsy and Johnny and she liked for young slaves to serve at parties, and even made him special clothes to act as butler.
Jonah was always around when the tutor came for the children’s lessons. Back then, nobody but white folk were supposed to read. But every chance he got he listened to the lessons and he learned the letters and numbers. It was Mrs. Williams who caught him taking a book from the master’s library—Robinson Crusoe.
He was just borrowing it, not stealing. He found it so interesting. He wanted to read everything. She promised she would not tell anyone he could read. He was afraid he might be sold and sent away to live with strangers. She said she would tell no one if he returned the book to the library, and read to her from the Bible, from time to time.
Mrs. Williams encouraged him to read from the Good Book-- she was going to give him his very own Bible, so he could study it and learn. She said it would make him wise and useful. She even gave him newspapers to read, where he learned about the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Great Compromise. He also read about Northern states—a place beyond North Carolina where no one was a slave.
However, an escaped slave could be arrested and returned to his owner. They had no slaves in the North. He was intrigued with foreign countries, wars, and places he had never heard of. He loved the newspapers—he thought this was Mrs. Williams greatest gift.
The day he did decide to run away from Mr. Williams’ plantation was the day he turned eighteen in 1850. A hot day in the cotton and corn fields in the middle of the summer. The day his secret was discovered.
It was the week Mrs. Williams was away visiting her sister in the mountains- Flat Rock, NC. He had kept the Bible in the loft of the barn (a good hiding place). He would read in the mornings—his secret pleasure, savoring the words and stories. He had gotten careless, and sneaked out a volume of a new story called David Copperfield.
He did not hear the footsteps due to the rain on the ladder in the loft. Mr. Williams saw him reading. He recognized as belonging to his wife. He accused him of stealing and lying. Mr. Williams wanted everyone to live and work in Christian harmony. Stolen books, not knowing he could even read. It was bad. Whipping, and lashing. Now mama was mad, she had warned him about the reading. Nothing would ever be the same.
Jonah had read enough to know about slaves running away to the North. Most got caught …. BUT some made it to the North, and people there would help. He had read about the Underground Railroad and abolitionists and he knew the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” which meant follow the Big Dipper and the North Star. He had studied maps and wondered how hard it would be to travel through the mountains—he could always follow the North Star.
The problem would be finding something to eat, and to keep from being eaten. Survival. However, he would take the risk, rather than to stay where he had been whipped and shamed—even if it took months. His fate had been sealed. He had to get ready for the journey. He needed money, good shoes, clothes, a map, a knife. He was ashamed to steal from his Mama, but it was the only way he knew to get the funds. He was so afraid, he almost turned back.
Slaves that ran away could be branded with a red hot iron and sometimes had to wear leg irons or a neck collar with spikes, and some had an ear cut off. He needed matches. He could not turn back. He had to be gone before morning. He even forgot food.
He starts his journey toward North Carolina. He would never see his mama or Mrs. Williams again. It was more than a thousand miles to the North, and he could travel ten miles a day—it would take months. He would be noticed, and captured, punished. He could have been born rich and in the North. Instead he’d been born Jonah, a slave- whipped for stealing a book that was already his.
This poor scared naive boy makes his way through the wilderness by foot. Along the way he meets some colorful people and has to be creative in order to survive. Jonah could not understand why God would allow some people to be slaves, and some crippled or afflicted in their minds? No transportation but his feet—he started second guessing his decision. Foolish. Hiding out during the day as best possible gathering what food he could along the way, trying to stay away from people—fearing he would be captured.
Then he meets Angel. Also, a black slave, working in her Master’s home and keeping his bed warm at night as well, among other things . . she was intrigued by this boy. She also wanted to escape.
Jonah: An escape from the Williams Place---his strength and hope. His pilgrimage. His freedom. He knows how to read and knows what he wants—just how to get there.
Angel: An escape from the Thomas Place. She did not know how to read or write. She also has her dreams.
Her master was in Raleigh and she had the night free. She knows she is no Angel. There was something about this boy she liked. Maybe it was his gumption and craziness to run away. She had never seen a runaway before. He was foolish enough to escape from wherever he came from, which meant he had more courage, than anyone else she knew…plus she liked his looks. She knew how to make a man happy.
Of course now Jonah’s knife and money, gone--starting over. Guess who is now following him? He did not need someone dragging him down, especially someone with a sharp tongue, an attitude, and a big butt. He had made it this far solo, and he did not need a traveling partner. She thought she was just as brave. They would have to get over the mountains to Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York, before they reached Canada.
He would probably never make it, and with her along, he did not have a shadow of a chance.
Fun, mischief, frustration, romance ----cat and mouse; an adventure with these two which will make you laugh out loud. Angel is strong, stubborn, and overbearing. She is “street smart”, and Jonah, “book smart." She knows creative ways to get things. Jonah is not afraid to take chances. Two halves that together complete wholeness. Yin/ Yang
Even though Jonah leaves Angel many times, and they go their separate ways; they seem to make their way to Ithaca and there they run into one another, once again. A town which was only supposed to be temporary on the way to Canada. Now, they both have new names, and new jobs. Will they be caught or pretend they do not know one another?
Angel’s dream on the road in Virginia-- Houses with pretty flower gardens, a marriage, a home, apple and cherry trees, and chicken houses with big brown eggs. Flowers on the porch. Angel is always at the back of Jonah’s mind. He tried to ignore her after arriving in Ithaca. She had followed him all the way from North Carolina. She had comforted him and helped him survive--she was the only person in Ithaca who could make him happy. Can he ignore her now—with her men folk?
Richly drawn, what a delightful and gripping Southern tale! Angel and Jonah are fun characters and the author did an exceptional job with character development, as well as the secondary characters which became integral parts of their journey. It wouldn’t be a Southern novel without mentions of the Bible, and a minister somewhere along the way.
A North Carolina native, enjoyed visiting familiar places (Flat Rock, and the NC mountain area). This coming-of-age tale, told from a slave’s point of view, in a time when unfortunately, they had no voice or rights-- A nice mix of wit, and humor to balance the injustice and sadness of slavery.
In addition to the digital copy, I also listened to the audiobook, narrated by Kevin R. Free and Carra Patterson with nice voices for both Jonah and Angel. .
Slavery in the South The lives of black people under slavery in the South were controlled by all sorts of laws, cruel beyond comprehension. No constitutional rights. Forbidden to learn how to read and write. The most effective way that a slave could retaliate against an owner was to run away. Approximately 100,000 slaves escaped from bondage in the South between 1810 and 1850. No issue has scarred our country with long term effects than slavery. When we celebrate American freedom, we must also be mindful of the long and painful struggle to share in those freedoms that faced and continue to face, generations of African Americans.
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Praise for Robert Morgan:
“Robert Morgan's true landscape is, as with all great writers, the peaks and valleys, the long and winding paths, of the human heart.” —Ron Rash
“Chasing the North Star is an epic journey, and Morgan’s vision of our dark past shines brilliantly detailed, deeply satisfying, and ultimately hopeful.” —Charles Frazier, author of Nightwoods and Cold Mountain
“…a gorgeous book full of lush prose, compelling characters, and an epic journey across America ten years before the Civil War.” —Chicago Review of Books
“Not only is the subject matter riveting, Morgan's language enhances the tension and defines his characters. The novel shines its light on the simple humanity of two teenagers adrift in a time of such hate and fear that it soon erupted into a bloody civil war. Today, with racial and ethnic tensions again running high, this stark, terrifying story of perilous love and the search for peace is especially illuminating.” —Knoxville News Sentinel
“A powerful, gripping, and unrelenting tale of wilderness survival under the most dire of circumstances in the pursuit of freedom: another outstanding work of historical fiction from Morgan.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Morgan’s latest is a grittily entertaining, smartly paced narrative about a fugitive slave. Morgan is a first-rate storyteller; he plots his novel extremely well, and readers will find this journey captivating.” —Publishers Weekly
“Morgan…presents the reader with a convincing and richly imagined experience.” —Booklist, starred review
“As with Morgan’s other eight other works of fiction, this one is hard to put down once begun. But the story is far more complex than a simple tale of page-turning adventure. Morgan’s rich grasp of historical detail makes Jonah’s and Angel’s experiences feel close, almost familiar, despite the distance of their historical period: these are people we can understand.” —Cornell Chronicle
“What an exciting new legend Robert Morgan has created! And just when we need such a story. Chasing the North Star has the gravity of the old slave narratives, and the blood-chilling action of a contemporary action thriller. The language reflects Morgan’s deep connection to the land and the tradition, and burns with conviction and insight and heart. Jonah Williams is a hero for the ages. Reading of his courage and humanity puts starch in your spine. A must read.” —Randall Kenan, author of Walking on Water
About the Author
Robert Morgan was raised on his family's farm in the North Carolina mountains. The author of eleven books of poetry and eight books of fiction, including the bestselling novel Gap Creek, he now lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches at Cornell University. Read More
Returning to My North Carolina Southern Roots, This Spring!
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In the theme of the Spring 2016 Okra Picks My personal list of favorites from the April-June list (below)-- those included on my personal JDCMustReadBooks' List.
A Charlotte, North Carolina native, LOVE reading Southern books, especially with some of the top authors from my home state!
The South produces the "Best Writers"...(Gems) Don't you agree? Join Me, in congrats to this list of fine Okra Spring Picks for 2016!