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Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan has widely published his poetry and fiction over the past few years. His work has been included in an O’Henry Awards anthology, selected as the Appalachian Writers Association as Book of the Year, selected for Oprah’s Book Club and a New York Times Bestseller. Adding to this impressive oeuvre is his latest wilderness survival novel, the slave escape journey of Jonah and Angel, in Chasing the North Star.

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.

Jonah is a companion slave as a child, taking the opportunity to learn to read alongside the children of his master, Mr. Williams. As he grows older, he reads anything he can lay his hands on, from the Bible to maps and newspapers, through which he learns that there is a safe place where there is no slavery, to the north. When he is wrongfully accused of a crime and stripped of his dignity, he makes a run for it, with nothing but a few coins in his pocket and a vague idea of his final destination. Along the way he encounters bandits, kindness, cruelty and a girl named Angel (who “ain’t no angel”).

But as 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.

What I liked most about this book was the sense of place. I loved the connection with the trees and nature, the appreciation of beauty in it without censoring the ugly, dead things that are real. It was a great parallel to the depiction of the characters as neither fully good nor fully evil, putting forth a message that we’re all capable of good and evil but our circumstances and choices determine which side we’re on. And in that sense, Jonah is not a perfect hero, or an infallibly pure and hard-done-by slave. He makes good choices and bad ones, he acts out of selfishness as well as generosity. It is real and it is honest, and it gave an extra level of depth to a fairly linear story.

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 juxtaposition of nature, the biblical imagery and the human tragedy of slavery and Jonah’s struggle towards freedom and survival is made vivid through Morgan’s poetic metaphors and imagery. Forces of nature are personified – the wind doesn’t die down, it lays. Storms don’t abate, they quieten. This gives the natural world around Jonah a vivacity akin to the faerie forest in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and gives a good background to the more mystical or dreamlike sequences in the story, such as the mysterious lights in the forest that lead Jonah towards a group of slaves dancing and singing deep in the hills.

When Mr. Williams hit him the first lick, the sting flashed through him. The hurt was not as bad as he 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. He jumped and twisted and felt something hot on his leg. He was pissing on the planks of the wall and the piss splashed back on him.

The only part that fell a bit flat to me was the pacing. The story of a slave’s escape is by nature linear, as it traces their journey from slavery to freedom. However, having sections told from Jonah’s perspective, and later from Angel’s perspective, while giving a better sense of how unreliable they are as narrators individually (and thereby giving a good idea of their characters) ended up being overly repetitive as the device was repeated several times. What’s more, the pace did not ebb and flow – it was as relentless as the heat on their backs as they marched along their route. While it propelled the story forward, it meant that the ups didn’t feel as up and the downs didn’t feel as down – I became numbed to their hardships until they didn’t seem that hard at all. Besides the pacing, I wasn’t really convinced of the relationship between Jonah and Angel – it felt forced.

If he didn’t run away tonight, he’d run away next week, or next year. That was certain as the wet ground under his feet and the twinkling heavens overhead.

Overall, this was a good read with exquisite style and a wonderful sense of place and time. However, the pacing and linearity meant it was not as emotionally affecting as I think it could have been, and the main conflict-resolution of the relationship between the two main characters was not as compelling either.