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Chasing the North Star: A Novel

Chasing the North Star: A Novel

4.5 2
by Robert Morgan

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Bestselling author Robert Morgan brings to full and vivid life the story of a runaway slave who, in 1850, flees the South Carolina plantation on which he was born, taking with him only a few coins, a knife, and the clothes on his back, and relying on the north star to guide him to safety.


Bestselling author Robert Morgan brings to full and vivid life the story of a runaway slave who, in 1850, flees the South Carolina plantation on which he was born, taking with him only a few coins, a knife, and the clothes on his back, and relying on the north star to guide him to safety.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In 1850, Jonah Williams escapes from a South Carolina mansion after being whipped for the offense of being literate. Sought by bounty hunters, Jonah crosses paths with another slave, Angel, and though he'd like to abandon her, she won't let him go. She sees him as her ticket to freedom, but she also loves Jonah and considers herself his perfect counterbalance: Jonah is educated but ignorant of life outside of books, while Angel is worldly wise and free. And she maintains her independence—which is one of the wonderful things about this story—no matter the indignities she endures, including prostitution, poverty, and rape. Adventures happen. The couple meet intriguing people. And time after time, Jonah walks away from Angel only to find, further down the road, that there she is again. Gradually, love takes shape. VERDICT Morgan (Gap Creek) has mined U.S. history to tell a picaresque story that succeeds at being both poetic and action filled.
School Library Journal
Jonah becomes a runaway slave on his 18th birthday after his master whips him for supposedly stealing a book. Jonah, who secretly knows how to read, has learned about freedom in the North. His journey from a plantation in South Carolina to freedom in upstate New York is harrowing to put it mildly. In moments of true suspense, this historical novel becomes a page-turner. Along the way, Jonah meets Angel, another runaway slave, and tries repeatedly to leave her behind. Aptly named, this character is an angel of sorts for him, though Jonah also finds her to be a hindrance. Angel's escape highlights a woman's perspective and reveals another layer of discrimination. The two characters provide first-person accounts at different points, and the author's decision to weave these two viewpoints offers readers a full sense of the characters. Young adults will identify with Jonah as he questions this racist system, all the while trying to find some hope in humanity. His odyssey moves him closer to freedom, but he also discovers his life's meaning and a passion for life. VERDICT A much-needed addition to high school libraries.—April Sanders, Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL
Kirkus Reviews
In this road novel set in the 19th century, a young black slave escapes a plantation to seek freedom in the North. Poet, novelist, and historian Morgan has staked out a rich piece of literary territory for himself. His splendid books (The Road from Gap Creek, 2013, etc.) have portrayed a frontier Appalachian world—especially North Carolina—of hardship and perseverance. This novel explores a subject that has been just on the edges of his previous books—the African-American experience. Jonah Williams is an 18-year-old South Carolina slave who becomes a runaway in the spring of 1851. After being falsely accused of stealing a book (he taught himself to read) and viciously lashed for his offense, Jonah decides to run. With only a knife and a few coins he took from his Mama's jar, and without any shoes, he heads into a mountainous wilderness filled with "outlaws and squatters and trash." Using the North Star as his beacon, he heads North, where he had read Negroes were free. The novel starts deceptively slowly, with what appears to be a fairly simple narrative told in simple prose, but it's much more. We closely follow Jonah as he confronts a world of copperheads, poison oak, hornets' nests, and massive mountains to climb. He must learn, adapt, be resourceful and wary to survive: "A slave was never supposed to hurry, or hold his head too high." Morgan beautifully conveys Jonah's wistful regrets for leaving and then his constant, palpable fears. He relies on his wiles to escape from men anxious to capture him, and there are many close calls—as well as severe violence. Along the way Jonah meets a slave girl, Angel, who then runs after him, hoping she'll find that freedom train to the North too. 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.
From the Publisher

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
“Richly imaginative and thoroughly well researched, Chasing the North Star walks the reader through an extensive and thrilling escape filled with fiery insight and deep personal conviction . . . [Morgan's] personal connection to the land, including its history and features, enables the reader to experience the thrilling escape vividly. His historical nuances and references are spot‑on. Chasing the North Star is an epic journey.” New York Journal of Books
“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
“Adventurous, compelling . . . Remarkably, despite the horrors of slavery and the almost insurmountable obstacles to escape, this is far from a grim novel. Generously laced with humor, it becomes a story of more than survival. It is a story filled with courage and hope.” Greensboro News & Record
“Not only is the subject matter riveting, Morgan's language enhances the tension and defines his characters . . . 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)

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

He was called Jonah because he was born during a terrible storm and his mama said soon as she let go of him and put him ashore in this world of folly and time, the thunder quieted and the wind laid. Trees had broken off their stumps and skipped across fields like dust brooms, and the Saluda River spread wide over the bottomlands. Some of the slave cabins behind Mr. Williams’s brick house got smashed to splinters by the high tempest.

But soon as Jonah was cut loose and washed off in a pan and wrapped up in a towel rag, his mama said the sky cleared and the moon came out and shined so bright you could see a needle in the light from the window. Everything the storm had ruined was vivid in the moonlight, including dead birds that had been torn from their roosts and snakes washed out of holes in the ground. Because Jonah arrived on the full of the moon in the middle of a storm under the sign of the Crab, his mama called him her moon baby. The granny woman that delivered him said he would always be darting away, running from one thing and then another. He’d be no more dependable than Jonah in the Holy Book.

THE DAY JONAH DECIDED to run away from Mr. Williams’s plantation was the day he turned eighteen. It was in the middle of summer, a hot day in the cotton fields and cornfields. The Williams plantation lay in the foothills of South Carolina, north of Greenville, on land just below the cotton line. Higher in the hills the season was too short to grow cotton. Farther south the winter was too short for apple trees to thrive. Mostly Mr. Williams grew corn, which he sold to stock drovers in the winter to feed their herds of cattle, horses, hogs, or flocks of sheep or turkeys. Drovers came by every day on the Buncombe Pike, driving their animals through dust or mud to the markets in Columbia and Charleston.

Mr. Williams had built pens beside his big brick house to hold the herds and flocks, and the drovers paid two bits to sleep on the floor or four bits to sleep in a room upstairs in the big house. The house was called a stand or a tavern, and many of the women worked inside cooking and cleaning and taking care of the drovers. But in the summer they worked in the fields also. Mr. Williams called the plantation Snowdon, for a place in Wales overseas where his grandpa had come from.

Since the Williams Place was not a regular plantation, almost everybody did more than one job. Field hands chopped wood when firewood was needed, and they cut trees and sawed lumber when a new barn or stock shed was built. “I can’t afford no field hands and house help,” Mr. Williams liked to say. Everybody had to hoe corn in the spring and all the men had to clean manure out of the stables and pens and spread the wagonloads on the fields.

But Jonah the moon baby had been lucky, because Mrs. Williams picked him out as a boy to serve her and her children. Mrs. Williams was blonde and young and plump. She was young enough to be Mr. Williams’s own child. She was from Columbia and she liked to wear lacy pink dresses and give parties for her friends from Greenville and Travelers Rest. She even gave parties for her children, Betsy and Johnny. And she liked young slaves to serve at parties for her offspring. She had special clothes made for Jonah to act as butler at frolics for Betsy and Johnny and the neighbor children of quality.

And because she paid special attention to Jonah, he paid special mind to Mrs. Williams. He volunteered to bring her the best strawberries from the patch just when they were perfectly ripe, and raspberries from the garden wall. He gathered chestnuts in the fall and roasted them on the hearth for his mistress. He carried her lap robe to the church in wintertime.

When Betsy and Johnny had their lessons, Jonah often got to sit with them. His job was to bring things the tutor and his pupils needed, a glass of water, a book from the library, an extra pen or pair of scissors. Jonah got to listen to the lessons and observe the writing on the slates, and in time he learned to read and count the same as Betsy and Johnny did. Jonah knew he was not supposed to be reading. Nobody but white folks were supposed to read. But every chance he got he listened to the lessons and he learned the letters and numbers. He tried to read newspapers left on the table and the children’s books left in the playroom.

It was Mrs. Williams who caught him taking a book from the master’s library. It was a big book called Robinson Crusoe and he’d listened to the tutor read that volume to Betsy and Johnny. It was a thrilling book, with lots of words Jonah didn’t understand. Day after day he listened to the tutor reading from that story, and when the book was taken back to the library Jonah promised himself he was going to slip it under his shirt and carry it back to the cabin to read himself by firelight.

Jonah knew where the book was. He’d replaced it on the shelf himself between smooth leather volumes with gold lettering on them. He had no trouble finding the book again and sliding it inside his shirt. He hoped to walk quickly down the hallway and take the side door out of the house. He would hide the book in a boxwood until nightfall. But just as he passed the dining room, Mrs. Williams called to him from the bottom of the stairs. She wanted him to carry a message to her friend Ophelia, who lived on the adjoining farm. She often called Jonah to deliver letters. But almost instantly she spotted the book under Jonah’s shirt where the volume’s weight pulled down the fabric.

“What is that?” Mrs. Williams said, and pointed to the sagging cloth.

“Ain’t nothing, ma’am.”

“Don’t lie to me,” Mrs. Williams snapped. She made Jonah draw the book from his shirt and hand it to her.

“I won’t have a thief in my house,” his mistress said.

Jonah wanted to tell her he was borrowing the book for the tutor, but he knew the tutor would say he’d already read the book to Betsy and Johnny.

“You were going to take the book to the store and try to sell it,” Mrs. Williams said.

Jonah shook his head and began to cry. He didn’t mean to cry, but his knees shook and his jaw trembled. He had no choice but to say he was borrowing the book to read himself. As he said the words he felt something hot and wet running down his pants leg. He looked at the floor and saw a puddle of pee growing on the varnished planks. Mrs. Williams noticed the streak down his jeans and the puddle also.

“Shame on you, Jonah,” she said. “Shame on you for deceiving us, and for stealing a volume from Mr. Williams’s library.”

Mrs. Williams was fat and soft, and she smelled like face powder and perfume. She took a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress and wiped his cheeks. She put her hands on Jonah’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes.

“I won’t tell anybody you can read,” she said. “I won’t tell anybody, if you’ll promise me. Will you promise me?”

Jonah nodded that he would promise her whatever she asked. He was trembling and afraid he might be whipped and put in chains and branded the way Old Isaac was. If a slave fought and hurt another slave, he was whipped and put in chains. Even worse, Jonah was afraid he might be sold and sent away to live among strangers. Mrs. Williams said she’d tell nobody he could read if Jonah would return the book to the library and read to her from the Bible from time to time. She said he’d benefit most from reading the Good Book and she was going to give him his very own Bible so he could study it and learn more.

“Reading the Bible will teach you not to steal and deceive,” Mrs. Williams said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Reading the Bible will make you wise and useful.”

The Bible Mrs. Williams gave Jonah was small enough to fit in his pocket. It had letters the size of gnats and hairs. But it was the prettiest book he’d ever seen, bound in rippling black leather. The edges of the pages were gold. The book had paper thin and crackly as cigarette paper or filmy bark on a river birch. Mrs. Williams made Jonah promise to read the book when he was alone. He could read it out in the woods or he could read it in the big house. He could read the book to her for his private lessons, and her private devotions.

“We will learn with each other,” Mrs. Williams said. She made him clean up the pee on the floor and wash his pants at the well.

AS JONAH READ TO Mrs. Williams from the Bible and learned more words, and learned the stories from the Bible, Mrs. Williams explained what words meant, words like void and begat, serpent and multiply. He stumbled through verses and Mrs. Williams explained when she could. Some of the words she didn’t know herself. She said someday he could learn to look up words in the dictionary, but for now he should just keep on reading. She liked to close her eyes while he read, like she was dreaming of things described in the Bible. Sometimes she had headaches and put a damp cloth soaked with camphor on her forehead and kept her eyes shut as he stumbled through verses.

“This will be just our secret,” Mrs. Williams said.

To help with his reading, Mrs. Williams let Jonah take newspapers back to the quarters. “Tell your mama they are to start fires with,” Mrs. Williams said. “But before you burn the papers up, you can read every word.”

From reading the newspapers Jonah learned about the Fugitive Slave Act, and he learned about the Great Compromise. Much of what he read he didn’t understand. He read about elections and things in faraway Washington. He read about the northern states, and at some point it came to him there was a place in the north, beyond North Carolina, where no one was a slave. He’d heard rumors about that. But an escaped slave could be arrested and returned to his owner. There were supposed to be no slaves up there, in the states to the north.

Jonah read many mysterious things in the newspapers before they got burned. He read about foreign countries and wars in places he’d never heard of. He read about places where the snow never melted, far to the north. And he read about governments with kings and ships that sailed to China. The newspapers were Mrs. Williams’s greatest gift to him, besides keeping the secret of his reading. In the heat and dirt of the Williams Place, the newspapers were an inky threshold where he could enter a landscape that reached to the North Pole and to other times and people he’d never heard a whisper about before.

The day Jonah decided to run away from the Williams Place was the day his secret was found out.

Meet the Author

ROBERT MORGAN is the author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, most notably his novel Gap Creek and his biography of Daniel Boone, both of which were national bestsellers. A professor at Cornell University since 1971 and visiting writer-in-residence at half a dozen universities, his awards include Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships and an Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. He was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2010. Find him online at www.robert-morgan.com.

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Chasing the North Star: A Novel 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous 10 months ago
18876111 More than 1 year ago
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for an honest review. Recently, I have been delving more into historical fiction, and this book is no exception. Chasing the North Star is about the journey north to escape slavery. This is only the second book I have read about slavery, the first being Beloved by Toni Morrison. I loved that this book was a journey and that the journey really showed the trials and tribulations of escaping slavery to the north. Chasing the North Star is told from two different points of view. The first is Jonah, his story is told from a third-person omniscient point of view. With this point of view, I was really engaged as a reader and was able to immerse myself into his story. Readers aren't introduced to the second character, Angel until page 75. Angel's story is told from a first person point of view, which makes this book really interesting in how it is written. At some point in the book, Jonah and Angel's stories come together️. When their stories come together, the chapters alternate between Jonah and Angel. I normally don't enjoy alternating points of view in books, however, it worked extremely well and didn't disrupt the flow of the story. I feel like Chasing the North Star did a much better job of showing the journey than Beloved. While I did love Beloved, I felt like I was living Jonah and Angel's journey more. I loved both Angel and Jonah's stories equally and how their relationship added a sense of lightheartedness and humor. I would definitely recommend this book to readers who love historical fiction.