Robert Morgan’s upcoming novel, Chasing the North Star is one that I came across during a stretch when my interest in the American Civil War was strong—it never does go away entirely but there are times when that interest is more prominent and I indulge it, and this was one of those times. Not set during the Civil War itself, Chasing the North Star is a novel about two runaway slaves as they make their journeys north to freedom. The way this novel unfolds is actually rather unique among novels in this subgenre.
As a house slave whose tasks centered around serving his master’s children—including during their lessons—Jonah Williams learned how to read and write. These skills, along with his ability to stop and think his way through situations in a clear and organized manner, prove invaluable when Jonah impulsively runs away from the plantation one night. His journey north to freedom is full of surprises and threats but no surprise is as complete as the young slave woman, Angel, whom he first meets incidentally in the woods. She immediately recognizes Jonah as a runaway and decides that she will run away too, following Jonah who clearly has a plan. Since two slaves are always more conspicuous than one, Jonah makes it his mission to abandon Angel when he gets the chance—but she somehow manages to find him again and again and again.
From my previous reading experiences where the plot was focused on a slave or slaves fleeing north for their freedom, so much of the book winds up focusing on the dangers they face—being hunted by their former owners with dogs on their trail, their desperation and the constant threat they’re under—or such books focus on something like the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist savior figures, overshadowing the slaves themselves whose story is presumably at the heart of things. In Chasing the North Star, however, the story is truly about these two runaways and their relationship with one another. There are things along their journeys that happen to them—many of the usual threats and dangers as well as circumstances that prove contrary to their (and the reader’s) expectations—but the real focus is on the ways these characters come together and find each other again.
One aspect of the story I found particularly interesting was the way the story addressed the characters’ feelings to what they’ve left behind. There is fear of what they would find if they wind up captured and taken back, but it isn’t the fear of punishment if caught that drives them—it’s the promise of what they might find. Similarly, the ties they had to their lives as slaves are tangible throughout. The difference between what they’re fleeing and what they’re leaving behind is stark, especially for Jonah. He frequently thinks back to his mother and siblings and what his leaving will mean for them. Because of how he left, he knows he will never have closure on that front. It is only as he gets further away and sees other situations along his way north that he appreciates how lucky he was in his treatment and at the same time how unfair. Angel isn’t as sensitive to those nuances, lingering less on the past and proving herself less concerned with the future as well; she very much inhabits the present and goes with the flow where Jonah always has a plan. Of course, both come to realize that there are so many things in life that simply happen for which there is no amount of adequate preparation.
Chasing the North Star will be available for purchase on April 5, 2016.