In this road novel set in the 19th century, a young black slave escapes a plantation to seek freedom in the North.
Poet, novelist, and historian Morgan has staked out a rich piece of literary territory for himself. His splendid books (The Road from Gap Creek, 2013, etc.) have portrayed a frontier Appalachian world—especially North Carolina—of hardship and perseverance. This novel explores a subject that has been just on the edges of his previous books—the African-American experience. Jonah Williams is an 18-year-old South Carolina slave who becomes a runaway in the spring of 1851. After being falsely accused of stealing a book (he taught himself to read) and viciously lashed for his offense, Jonah decides to run. With only a knife and a few coins he took from his Mama’s jar, and without any shoes, he heads into a mountainous wilderness filled with “outlaws and squatters and trash.” Using the North Star as his beacon, he heads North, where he had read Negroes were free. The novel starts deceptively slowly, with what appears to be a fairly simple narrative told in simple prose, but it’s much more. We closely follow Jonah as he confronts a world of copperheads, poison oak, hornets’ nests, and massive mountains to climb. He must learn, adapt, be resourceful and wary to survive: “A slave was never supposed to hurry, or hold his head too high.” Morgan beautifully conveys Jonah’s wistful regrets for leaving and then his constant, palpable fears. He relies on his wiles to escape from men anxious to capture him, and there are many close calls—as well as severe violence. Along the way Jonah meets a slave girl, Angel, who then runs after him, hoping she’ll find that freedom train to the North too.
A powerful, gripping, and unrelenting tale of wilderness survival under the most dire of circumstances in the pursuit of freedom: another outstanding work of historical fiction from Morgan.