As a writer, Robert Morgan isn’t afraid to try out new forms. He has published poetry, essays, history, biographies and fiction. And, while his medium might change from project to project, there is a common thread that links many of the writer’s works — an ongoing investigation into, and exploration of, America’s past.
Morgan’s latest novel, Chasing the North Star (Algonquin Books), is no exception. Set against the backdrop of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, the story chronicles the escape of 18 year-old Jonah Williams, who flees from his life as a slave on a South Carolina plantation. Part history, part adventure, part coming-of-age story, the reader follows Jonah throughout his journey across the Appalachian Mountains and the many dangers he encounters.
The threats, of course, vary throughout the book. Bootleggers, slave catchers, imprisonment, blackmail and a river full of caskets all work against Jonah’s quest for freedom. It’s the character’s early reservations and doubts, however, that remind readers of Jonah’s youth. His initial concerns have less to do with the repercussions of possible capture and more to do with the uncertainties of his new surroundings. The mystery of the evening and its potential unseen threats evoke fears of snakes, panthers, wolves and bears. In the midst of these dreadful thoughts, the reality of his ill-planned escape surfaces with the grumbling of his belly. Without food, and with only a limited amount of money, the weight of his escape delivers burdens that require creative solutions.
Five chapters into the story, Jonah meets Angel. From this point forward, the novel’s structure shifts, offering back and forth perspectives from both characters. Angel sees in Jonah her one chance for freedom. Unfortunately for Angel, Jonah will dedicate as much time to escaping her as he does to all other obstacles that threaten his plan. While the cat-and-mouse game of love offers some of the more lighthearted moments within the novel, it also lends itself to the novel’s major flaw — Angel’s lack of dimension. Here is a woman seemingly unfazed by continual betrayal. A woman who time and again comes to the rescue of Jonah, only to be rewarded with further abandonment.
In some ways, Morgan uses Angel’s character to explore the exploitative roles women of lower status were forced into during the time period. On numerous occasions, Angel finds herself working as a prostitute in an effort to survive — grateful to have a roof over her head and a bed to sleep on (regardless of whom she might have to share it with). In these moments, the reader sympathizes with and better understands her seeming aversion to self-examination. Survival is survival. There is no sense in looking at any given situation as anything other than that.
At the same time, the serendipitous reunions that continue to bring Jonah and Angel together grow weaker and more predictable as the novel moves forward. Ironically, part of the weakness comes when Morgan attempts to have Angel explain her undying love — justifications include, “And I saw that a woman couldn’t quit loving a man just because he was scared and forgetful.”
This isn’t to say the novel as a whole fails to captivate the reader. Morgan is a pro at plot and pace. But with a character as rich and complex as Jonah Williams, it leaves the reader wondering where that effort went in creating the book’s other half.