Chasing the North Star: A Novel

  • By Robert Morgan
  • Algonquin Books
  • 308 pp.
  • Reviewed by Donya Currie
  • April 13, 2016

A rich, masterfully spun story of two slaves fleeing the South

Chasing the North Star: A Novel

Robert Morgan’s Chasing the North Star, a tale of two slaves seeking freedom, is one of those page-turners that’s tough to put down. Not only does he expertly draw the physical landscape — what it would look like to trek through the hills of South Carolina into North Carolina and points beyond — but he gives the reader clear examples of the inner conflict that comes with any change, no matter how necessary.

Jonah, a slave who decides he must seek freedom, is almost instantly sorry about his rash decision. He misses his mama. He misses the slave-owner’s wife, who was always kind to him. He misses the details of the familiar, especially as he realizes he’ll never experience the familiar again.

Morgan convincingly shows us why a slave would finally make the life-threatening decision to run. For Jonah, the turning point was a whipping at the hands of his owner, Mr. Williams.

“When Mr. Williams hit him the first lick, the sting flashed through him. The hurt was not as bad as he had expected and at the same time it was worse. It was a hurt he’d known before, but the lash also touched a new raw place.”

Jonah is a fascinating character, and Morgan weaves in details that make the reader root for his success. Jonah is smart, and he knows the worst thing to do when walking by white folks is to look like he’s in a hurry. He also knows how to deal with dogs, whistling and putting out his hand to appear less threatening.

He knows to take his time when eating raw corn, the first food he’s been able to find in days, else he wind up sick with a belly ache. “He slowed down and munched the sweet, fibrous seeds. When you have a long way to go, it does no good to get out of breath and confused.”

As likeable as Jonah is, and as much as the reader feels for his plight, it is when a fellow slave named Angel appears on the scene that the book really takes off.

Morgan alternates chapters from each slave’s point of view, and it’s fun to read what Angel, who had been raised a house slave to sexually please her master at his whim but somehow has maintained a fiercely independent spirit, has to say about many of life’s truths, like how you can tell a good man from a mean one.

“A boy that’s mad at you, a good boy, will not want to look you in the face. Mean men will look right into your eyes.”

She also knows not to believe much of what Jonah tells her.

“Now I knew you couldn’t put any trust in what a man said. A man will as soon lie to you as spit out a watermelon seed.”

Both Jonah and Angel run into soul-crushing obstacles during their journey. At a time when just being black could mean a white man had the right to kill you, trying to get away and forge a new life seems impossible.

They dream of small comforts. “And I thought how nice it would be to have a house and sewing table and light to see by,” Angel says to herself one night. “Just to have a chair to sit in would be a luxury.”

Morgan reminds us not only how horrific slavery was, but also the ways in which a moment can change everything. Every time Jonah seems to catch a break, something evil lurks around the next bend.

“Jonah saw the end of a shotgun poking out of the dark at him. He could hardly make out the face of the man holding it under his arm. ‘Ain’t done nothing wrong,’ Jonah said. The man with the gun laughed like he was at a frolic. ‘Everybody has done something wrong,’ he said.”

Because Jonah and Angel want freedom more than anything, they struggle with how they feel about each other. Jonah shrugs off Angel every chance he gets. And she understands that.

“Men want you and then they want to get away,” Angel says. Yet when she and Jonah are together over time, they start to realize it might be meant to be.

“The fact is I was waking up, too. I’d been with lots of men and shown them a good time, but I had never been with anybody like Jonah,” Angel says one night. “Jonah made me feel a spark of sweetness down in my belly and in my head. I liked the way he touched my shoulders and my hair and rubbed me all over like he was finding a new country. And I reckon I was big as a country.”

Will Angel and Jonah survive their journey? Will one sacrifice the other for freedom? Morgan keeps the reader in suspense until the very end, and that’s one of the most tantalizing aspects of his tale.

Donya Currie is a journalist, fiction writer, and the web manager for a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC.

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