REVIEW: Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan
CHASING THE NORTH STAR by Robert Morgan is an early American historical survival adventure novel about two slaves who journey north toward freedom.
Jonah was born a slave in the foothills of South Carolina, north of Greenville. His owner’s wife, Mrs. Williams, chose Jonah to serve her family in the main house. Since Jonah serves the Williams’ children, he learns by observation when they’re tutored. When Mrs. Williams catches Jonah with a book from their library, she bargains for her silence by requesting that he read to her from the Bible daily. Next, he begins to read the newspapers Mrs. Williams sends home with him for his mama to use for kindling.
Jonah hides books in the barn loft to sneak up to read when Mrs. Williams is visiting family in another town. Mr. Williams catches Jonah with the books and whips him for stealing, unaware that his young wife gave them to him. Jonah decides to run away and use his knowledge of maps to go north to freedom in Canada where there are no slaves.
Jonah’s journey is treacherous while he pretends to run errands for a fake master when anyone questions him. He’s clever, so he comes up with ways to convince others he’s telling the truth. He has many skills, including ingenuity, to aid his survival in a mostly inhospitable wilderness in-between towns. At one point, he is captured by bootleggers and forced to haul jugs for them. He escapes their cruelty, only to be chased by someone else, narrowly escaping capture and torture.
In chapter five, Jonah meets Angel late one night when he stumbles upon a group of slaves dancing. The slaves on Angel’s plantation sneak off with other plantation slaves for Jubilee, a celebration with some dark rituals. Angel introduces Jonah to sex at Jubilee. She is her master’s slave mistress. Angel decides she’s tired of warming her master’s bed and follows Jonah. But Jonah doesn’t want company and eventually he ditches Angel.
After they’re separated the first time, their journeys become a game of cat and mouse. Sometimes Angel catches Jonah, only for him to escape her once again. Will Angel’s dream of getting married ever come true? Will they get themselves to freedom, or be sent back to their masters?
CHASING THE NORTH STAR is a historical coming of age story for Jonah and Angel but it’s written with adult scenes so that’s who should read it. In many ways Jonah and Angel seem younger than they are because they have been sheltered and uneducated during their life as slaves. An adventure, their escape, plus the various atrocities they endure, pulls you in, hoping for their freedom.
Jonah and Angel aren’t always likable characters individually or as a couple. Most of the time I didn’t care if they stayed together, based on their treatment of one another. What I did care about is that they somehow found their freedom from slavery. I empathized with their situation but their actions and thoughts were sometimes disturbing.
Hardcore historical fiction lovers will value this book most for its adventure aspects and survivalist methods. I rooted for the characters to escape the distasteful practice of slavery and all its nuances. Their adventure was engrossing, as well as their will to survive every despicable thing that happened to them along the way. For that reason, I read this book quickly to the end. I don’t remember reading about an underground railroad connection as these characters seemed to be acting on their own without help from abolitionists.
What I did not enjoy were their sexual exploits, as well as the cruelty of others toward Angel. She seemed to accept her circumstances with a devil-may-care attitude about sex and I expected her to resent her treatment more than accept it or initiate it. If you normally read romantic historical fiction, you won’t find much delicacy in regards to this couple’s relationship. Neither of them seem to have morals, willing to steal or worse to reach their goal. Even reading the Bible doesn’t seem to point them in the right direction. I never felt their caring for each other as a healthy emotion. Most of the time I felt they treated each other with disrespect and I didn’t understand why they wanted to be together. Other than they had journeyed together for so long that their stories were familiar and intertwined. I was most confused by Angel’s pursuit of Jonah because he was so selfish. She definitely had spunk and didn’t accept rejection without determination to get her own way.
Author Robert Morgan writes an intriguing historical adventure that’s believable based on his characters’ knowledge. Jonah was repetitive in his words and his thoughts, so some of that could have been edited to streamline this story into a more succinct package. I didn’t get bored but I kept feeling like I had just read that phrase or thought. I read an advance copy so these repeats may have been revised for publication. I cannot recommend this book to romance readers because I don’t think it has the elements they will expect. But this book wasn’t presented to me as a romance. It’s listed as African American historical family saga on Amazon, which suits it better. I merely mention it because I had hoped it would satisfy my craving for a historical romance with slaves escaping as a theme, but this book doesn’t resemble those wishes enough to satisfy those specific expectations.
CHASING THE NORTH STAR will incite your anger at the inhumanity of slavery in early America, hoping for a better tomorrow for these characters who endure the callousness of being hunted. Robert Morgan’s gritty style of historical fiction is literary, yet the simple words flow quickly as the adventure races. Stylistically it’s different from what I normally read so I found that aspect stimulating. Even though there were some parts I didn’t enjoy as much as the adventure, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this novel. I want to know what happens to Jonah and Angel’s descendants. Did Jonah and Angel each pass on their story through generations? CHASING THE NORTH STAR will make you wonder long after the last page is turned.
Review by Dorine, courtesy of The Zest Quest. Digital ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan
Category: African American Historical
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Release Date: April 5, 2016
Rated 3.5 out of 5
What are some of your favorite early American historical novels?