Chasing the North Star

Robert Morgan. Algonquin, $25.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-56512-627-5

Morgan’s (Gap Creek) latest is a grittily entertaining, smartly paced narrative about a fugitive slave. It’s 1851, and 18-year-old house servant Jonah Williams decides to run away from the Williams corn plantation located near Greenville, S.C. Having learned to read and write, Jonah is severely whipped by his master for reading books from the plantation library. From the newspapers, he discovers that freedom lies to the north, and he escapes on foot, guided by the North Star on his eventful journey. He survives by his wits until he arrives at a slaves’ mountaintop “jubilee,” where he meets the zaftig Angel Thomas. After becoming Jonah’s new lover, she wants to leave her master and join his flight despite his reluctance to accept a partner. The spirited interplay between the earthy Angel and cerebral Jonah provides much of the comic relief from the often violent, bleak conditions they encounter. Their harrowing ordeal while forced to work at a high-end brothel in Roanoke, Va., almost derails their mission. Despite being separated several times, Jonah always ends up back in the company of Angel as they push on to New York and Canada. He uses forged papers and an assumed name to live as a free man, while Angel realizes she has fallen in love with him. Morgan is first-rate storyteller; he plots his novel extremely well, and readers will find this journey captivating. (Apr.)
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