Chasing the North Star

A Novel


By Robert Morgan

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In his latest historical novel, bestselling author Robert Morgan brings to full and vivid life the story of Jonah Williams, who, in 1850, on his eighteenth birthday, flees the South Carolina plantation on which he was born a slave. He takes with him only a few stolen coins, a knife, and the clothes on his back–no shoes, no map, no clear idea of where to head, except north, following a star that he prays will be his guide.

Hiding during the day and running through the night, Jonah must elude the men sent to capture him and the bounty hunters out to claim the reward on his head. There is one person, however, who, once on his trail, never lets him fully out of sight: Angel, herself a slave, yet with a remarkably free spirit.

In Jonah, she sees her own way to freedom, and so sets out to follow him.

Bristling with breathtaking adventure, Chasing the North Star is deftly grounded in historical fact yet always gripping and poignant as the story follows Jonah and Angel through the close calls and narrow escapes of a fearsome world. It is a celebration of the power of the human spirit to persevere in the face of great adversity. And it is Robert Morgan at his considerable best.




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.

But 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. 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 DAY JONAH DECIDED to run away from Mr. Williams's plantation was the day he turned eighteen. It was in the middle of summer, a hot day in the cotton fields and cornfields. The Williams plantation lay in the foothills of South Carolina, north of Greenville, on land just below the cotton line. Higher in the hills the season was too short to grow cotton. Farther south the winter was too short for apple trees to thrive. Mostly Mr. Williams grew corn, which he sold to stock drovers in the winter to feed their herds of cattle, horses, hogs, or flocks of sheep or turkeys. Drovers came by every day on the Buncombe Pike, driving their animals through dust or mud to the markets in Columbia and Charleston.

Mr. Williams had built pens beside his big brick house, which he called Snowdon, to hold the herds and flocks, and the drovers paid two bits to sleep on the floor or four bits to sleep in a room upstairs in the big house. The house was called a stand or a tavern, and many of the women worked inside cooking and cleaning and taking care of the drovers. But in the summer they worked in the fields also. Mr. Williams called the plantation Snowdon, for a place in Wales overseas where his grandpa had come from.

Since the Williams Place was not a regular plantation, almost everybody did more than one job. Field hands chopped wood when firewood was needed, and they cut trees and sawed lumber when a new barn or stock shed was built. "I can't afford no field hands and house help," Mr. Williams liked to say. Everybody had to hoe corn in the spring and all the men had to clean manure out of the stables and pens and spread the wagonloads on the fields.

But Jonah the moon baby had been lucky, because Mrs. Williams picked him out as a boy to serve her and her children. Mrs. Williams was blonde and young and plump. She was young enough to be Mr. Williams's own child. She was from Columbia and she liked to wear lacy pink dresses and give parties for her friends from Greenville and Travelers Rest. She even gave parties for her children, Betsy and Johnny. And she liked young slaves to serve at parties for her offspring. She had special clothes made for Jonah to act as butler at frolics for Betsy and Johnny and the neighbor children of quality.

And because she paid special attention to Jonah, he paid special mind to Mrs. Williams. He volunteered to bring her the best strawberries from the patch just when they were perfectly ripe, and raspberries from the garden wall. He gathered chestnuts in the fall and roasted them on the hearth for his mistress. He carried her lap robe to the church in wintertime.

When Betsy and Johnny had their lessons, Jonah often got to sit with them. His job was to bring things the tutor and his pupils needed, a glass of water, a book from the library, an extra pen or pair of scissors. Jonah got to listen to the lessons and observe the writing on the slates, and in time he learned to read and count the same as Betsy and Johnny did. Jonah knew he was not supposed to be reading. Nobody but white folks were supposed to read. But every chance he got he listened to the lessons and he learned the letters and numbers. He tried to read newspapers left on the table, and the children's books left in the playroom.

It was Mrs. Williams who caught him taking a book from the master's library. It was a big book called Robinson Crusoe and he'd listened to the tutor read that volume to Betsy and Johnny. It was a thrilling book, with lots of words Jonah didn't understand. Day after day he listened to the tutor reading from that story, and when the book was taken back to the library Jonah promised himself he was going to slip it under his shirt and carry it back to the cabin to read himself by firelight.

Jonah knew where the book was. He'd replaced it on the shelf himself between smooth leather volumes with gold lettering on them. He had no trouble finding the book again and sliding it inside his shirt. He hoped to walk quickly down the hallway and take the side door out of the house. He would hide the book in a boxwood until nightfall. But just as he passed the dining room, Mrs. Williams called to him from the bottom of the stairs. She wanted him to carry a message to her friend Ophelia, who lived on the adjoining farm. She often called Jonah to deliver letters. But almost instantly she spotted the book under Jonah's shirt where the volume's weight pulled down the fabric.

"What is that?" Mrs. Williams said and pointed to the sagging cloth.

"Ain't nothing, ma'am."

"Don't lie to me," Mrs. Williams snapped. She made Jonah draw the book from his shirt and hand it to her.

"I won't have a thief in my house," his mistress said.

Jonah wanted to tell her he was borrowing the book for the tutor, but he knew the tutor would say he'd already read the book to Betsy and Johnny.

"You were going to take the book to the store and try to sell it," Mrs. Williams said.

Jonah shook his head and began to cry. He didn't mean to cry, but his knees shook and his jaw trembled. He had no choice but to say he was borrowing the book to read himself. As he said the words he felt something hot and wet running down his pants leg. He looked at the floor and saw a puddle of pee growing on the varnished planks. Mrs. Williams noticed the streak down his jeans and the puddle also.

"Shame on you, Jonah," she said. "Shame on you for deceiving us, and for stealing a volume from Mr. Williams's library."

Mrs. Williams was young and fat and soft, and she smelled like face powder and perfume. She took a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress and wiped his cheeks. She put her hands on Jonah's shoulders and looked him in the eyes.

"I won't tell anybody you can read," she said. "I won't tell anybody, if you'll promise me. Will you promise me?"

Jonah nodded that he would promise her whatever she asked. He was trembling and afraid he might be whipped and put in chains and branded the way Old Isaac was. If a slave fought and hurt another slave, he was whipped and put in chains. Even worse, Jonah was afraid he might be sold and sent away to live among strangers. Mrs. Williams said she'd tell nobody he could read if Jonah would return the book to the library and read to her from the Bible from time to time. She said he'd benefit most from reading the Good Book and she was going to give him his very own Bible so he could study it and learn more.

"Reading the Bible will teach you not to steal and deceive," Mrs. Williams said.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Reading the Bible will make you wise and useful."

The Bible Mrs. Williams gave Jonah was small enough to fit in his pocket. It had letters the size of gnats and hairs. But it was the prettiest book he'd ever seen, bound in rippling black leather. The edges of the pages were gold. The book had paper thin and crackly as cigarette paper or filmy bark on a river birch. Mrs. Williams made Jonah promise to read the book when he was alone. He could read it out in the woods or he could read it in the big house. He could read the book to her for his private lessons, and her private devotions.

"We will learn with each other," Mrs. Williams said. She made him clean up the pee on the floor and wash his pants at the well.

AS JONAH READ TO Mrs. Williams from the Bible and learned more words, and learned the stories from the Bible, Mrs. Williams explained what words meant, words like void and begat, serpent and multiply. He stumbled through verses and Mrs. Williams explained when she could. Some of the words she didn't know herself. She said someday he could learn to look up words in the dictionary, but for now he should just keep on reading. She liked to close her eyes while he read, like she was dreaming of things described in the Bible. Sometimes she had headaches and put a damp cloth soaked with camphor on her forehead and kept her eyes shut as he stumbled through verses.

"This will be just our secret," Mrs. Williams said.

To help with his reading, Mrs. Williams let Jonah take newspapers back to the quarters. "Tell your mama they are to start fires with," Mrs. Williams said. "But before you burn the papers up, you can read every word."

From reading the newspapers Jonah learned about the Fugitive Slave Law, and he learned about the Great Compromise. Much of what he read he didn't understand. He read about elections and things in faraway Washington. He read about the Northern states, and at some point it came to him there was a place in the North, beyond North Carolina, where no one was a slave. He'd heard rumors about that. But an escaped slave could be arrested and returned to his owner. There were supposed to be no slaves up there, in the states to the north.

Jonah read many mysterious things in the newspapers before they got burned. He read about foreign countries and wars in places he'd never heard of. He read about places where the snow never melted, far to the north. And he read about governments with kings and ships that sailed to China. The newspapers were Mrs. Williams's greatest gift to him, besides keeping the secret of his reading. In the heat and dirt of the Williams Place, the newspapers were an inky threshold where he could enter a landscape that reached to the North Pole and to other times and people he'd never heard a whisper about before.

The day Jonah decided to run away from the Williams Place was the day his secret was found out.

Mr. Williams liked to be known among the people of the region, the other planters, the drovers, and the Negroes, as someone strict but fair. "Long as you obey the law and do your work I'll be fair with you," he liked to say. He almost never whipped a slave. He said whipping injured pride and injured property, instilled fear and resentment, and in the long run interfered with the work and harmony of the household. But Mr. Williams liked to remind his help that anyone who broke his rules and didn't do the work assigned would feel the lash. He kept a black snake whip hanging on a peg inside the barn door and from time to time it had been used on more than horses and oxen.

Jonah was caught the week Mrs. Williams was away visiting her sister in Flat Rock, twenty miles to the north, up in the mountains of North Carolina. A lot of families from Charleston and Columbia had homes in the highland community there. From late spring till early fall they stayed in the mountains to escape the heat and fever of the low country and central South Carolina. Everybody knew about the fine mansions there, and the wide, cool lawns and pine woods, the dances by the lake, the champagne lunches. It was a rainy summer day and no one worked in the fields. Summer was not a season when many drovers came along the Buncombe Pike, so things were quiet at the Williams Place. With Mrs. Williams and the children away, Jonah had no special duties. Mr. Williams was supervising work in the blacksmith shed, where iron bands were being fitted on wagon wheels. The ring of the hammers on steel was the only sound in the place except the tap of rain and the clucking of hens laying eggs in the chicken house.

For the past several months Jonah had kept his Bible in the loft of the barn. He'd found that the best hiding place because it was dry there and hardly anyone came up to the loft. He laid the Bible on top of a beam, and when he had a free hour in daylight he climbed the ladder to the loft and sat in the hay and read a few pages from the fine book. It was his favorite time of day, when he could pore over the words and say them to himself. It was his secret pleasure, savoring the words and stories.

He'd been so successful at hiding the book and finding time to read from it, Jonah had gotten careless. From the library he'd sneaked a volume of a new story called David Copperfield because he'd heard the tutor mention it. The book was in three volumes and he'd taken only one, hoping it wouldn't be missed. When he finished that one he'd exchange it for the next.

The books lay on top of the beam and he fetched them down and sat in the hay with his treasures in front of him. Rain on the tin roof was doing a tap dance that went on and on. In the gloom of the hay loft there was just enough light to read by. Jonah opened the Bible first. He would read a chapter there from the story about King David, and then he'd turn to the thrilling story about the other David and his friend Steerforth. Because of the hammering from the forge and the tap and hammer of the rain, he didn't hear the steps on the ladder to the loft.

Mr. Williams climbed up to the loft to get a piece of old harness hanging there. He planned to cut the harness into sections to use as pads on the brakes of his wagons. When he saw Jonah sitting in the hay he probably wasn't sure at first what the boy was doing. Jonah did know though that Mr. Williams resented that his wife was so fond of him.

"I can find some work for you, boy," Mr. Williams said.

Jonah jerked around, and as he turned Mr. Williams saw the books on his knees.

"What you got there, Jonah?" Mr. Williams said. He picked up the fine Bible and the volume of David Copperfield. He recognized the former as one that belonged to his wife.

"You have stole these," Mr. Williams said.

"I ain't," Jonah said, his teeth chattering.

Jonah saw that he was caught. He couldn't say that Mrs. Williams had given him the Bible, because he'd promised not to tell that she knew he could read, and that he read to her. And even if he could explain where he got the Holy Book, there was still the volume of the novel he'd taken from the library.

"What you doing with those books?" Mr. Williams growled.

"Borrowed them," Jonah said, his lips trembling. "Gonna take them back." But that was all he could say. There was nothing he could offer in his defense. And Mrs. Williams couldn't help him because she was away with her children in Flat Rock and would be gone another week.

"I'm a fair man," Mr. Williams said. His eyes pierced through Jonah like hot pokers.

"I know you are, sir," Jonah said and hung his head.

"But I won't have any stealing or lying on this place."

"No, sir," Jonah said.

Mr. Williams said it made him sad that Jonah was a thief. He wanted everyone on the Williams Place to live in Christian harmony and work in harmony. It hurt his feelings that Jonah would steal. "We are a family here," Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Williams had a chew of tobacco in his mouth and he spit it out on the loft floor and wiped a copper stain from his lip. He made Jonah precede him down the ladder and he followed, carrying the books under his right arm.

"You have stole books you can't even read," Mr. Williams said. Jonah wanted to shout that he could read, and that he'd read to Mrs. Williams, but he saw that wouldn't help him now. Since it was raining steadily Mr. Williams told Reuben the blacksmith to tie Jonah's hands to the railing of the horse stall. Jonah had to take off his shirt before he was tied up, and Mr. Williams made him drop his overalls also. Mr. Williams took the whip from the peg beside the barn door.

"This is for your own good," the master said. "I don't want you to become a thief."

Several slaves had gathered in the hallway of the barn to watch. Chickens pecked for corn in the dirt of the hallway floor. With his face against the planks, Jonah smelled manure and piss, and the dust of the old corn. His knees shook and his lips trembled. 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.

"I won't have a thief on this place," Mr. Williams said again, and lashed him across the back, and lower down on the small of his back. The whip cut wires of fire in his flesh, as it fell on his legs and buttocks, and then on his back again. Jonah felt something else hot on his legs and thought it must be blood, but then smelled his own shit. The shit ran down his legs, the streaming, steaming shit of a coward.

Jonah must have fainted then for the next thing he knew he was being dragged out into the rain to the well. Buckets of cold water were thrown on him and rain pecked his face and shoulders.

"You clean yourself up and go back to your place and rest," Mr. Williams said and tossed a tow sack at Jonah to cover his nakedness. "I'm a fair man, but I won't have thieves on my place."

Jonah wrapped himself in the sack and limped back to the cabin. Other slaves watched him go by and didn't say anything.

"What you go and do a thing like that for?" Mama said as he came inside. "Why you steal from Massa Williams?"

Jonah didn't answer her. There was no use. He lay down on his cot in the corner of the room face down, and he stayed there all afternoon.

"I knowed you gone get in trouble with all that reading," Mama said.

"How you know I was reading?"

" 'Cause I got eyes," Mama said. "You always pawing over and staring at them newspapers. I knowed you gone land yourself in trouble. I seen it coming."

When Mama hollered she had supper ready, fresh corn and green beans and new potatoes, he didn't move. He wasn't hungry a bit, not just because his back was hurting, and his legs, too, but because he was thinking. In the newspapers Jonah had read about slaves running away to the North. Most got caught by men with guns and horses and hound dogs, but some made it all the way. And if you made it to the North, people there would help you. He'd read about the Underground Railroad and abolitionists and he knew the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd," which meant follow the Big Dipper and the North Star.

As he lay on the cot with his back aching, Jonah thought and thought about what he'd heard and what he'd read. And along about dark, while Mama and the rest of the children were eating, he had an idea. In the lessons with the tutor, Betsy and Johnny had learned to read maps and Jonah had listened. He'd studied the maps himself and seen where South Carolina joined North Carolina. And he'd seen the chain of mountains leaning to the northeast and running all the way to the northern states.

The tutor said those mountains were wild and full of Indians and outlaws and people that made moonshine. The tutor said there were no plantations in the rocky hollows and deep valleys, only cabins and people who didn't even know how to read. The tutor said quality folks lived on the east side of the mountain chain, but only outlaws and squatters and trash lived in the mountains.

Jonah wondered how hard it would be to travel through such mountains. There were probably no roads and only a few trails. With rivers and deep hollows, cliffs and thickets, it would be almost impossible to travel that way. But at the same time it would be almost impossible for anyone to follow him. That was why escaping slaves headed for swamps and canebrakes, where they couldn't be easily followed. If he got into the mountains and became lost he could always follow the North Star. The problem would be to find something to eat, and to keep from being eaten by panthers, bears, wolves, and maybe Indians. It could take him months, even years to follow those mountains. But he'd rather take the risks that way than to stay here where he'd been whipped and shamed forever.

Now that Mr. Williams thought Jonah was a thief, he would always call him a thief. Now that he'd been whipped before all the others, Jonah would always be called a bad nigger. His fate had been decided suddenly that rainy afternoon in midsummer, when Mr. Williams climbed the ladder to the loft and Mrs. Williams was away.

Jonah lay on the cot and thought about what he could take with him. There were all kinds of things he'd need for such a journey. For one thing he'd need a knife and good shoes and strong clothes. He needed money and a map, and he needed a better hat. Mr. Williams only gave his slaves shoes in the winter time, cheap heavy brogans. Jonah needed shoes that didn't leave tracks, and he needed to travel fast and light. He could steal a knife from the kitchen behind the big house, and he might take a hat from the pegs inside the kitchen door. But he wasn't sure where he could find money. Mr. Williams kept his money locked in a box inside his bedroom.

Mama saved coins in a jar over the door of the cabin. But she would hear the rattle on the glass if he tried to take them out of the jar in the dark. He was ashamed to think of stealing money from Mama, but it was the only way he knew to get the funds for his long journey.

Jonah lay on the cot till all his brothers and sisters were asleep. He waited until he heard Mama snoring and then he quietly raised himself. Even if Mama woke she would just assume he was going out to pee. After lying on the cot all afternoon and evening it would make sense that he had to relieve himself. He slipped on his shirt and a pair of ragged overalls. When he reached the door he felt for the jar on the board above it, but the jar was not there. After a moment of panic, he walked his fingers along the wood and touched glass. The jar had been moved to the left from where he'd last seen it. He lowered the jar without rattling the coins and slipped out into the night.

July is the quietest month of the summer. The crickets have not appeared in the hills of South Carolina and the katydids would not start their singing until later, in August. Only an occasional cicada, or jarfly, buzzed in the trees. The rain had stopped, and a crust of moon shone through the clouds. Jonah hurried to the kitchen and took a hat from one of the pegs, then found the shelf where the knives were kept. He didn't want a large butcher knife, which would be hard to conceal, but he needed something bigger than a paring knife. There was a strong knife with a wooden handle that he'd seen the cook use for slicing meat. He felt in the dark for that knife, being careful not to cut his fingers on the blades, and when he found the right one he stepped quickly into the backyard and headed toward the road. He wished he had some shoes, and he wished he had a map, but he had to get far into the mountains before daylight, before anyone knew he was gone.



By the time Jonah reached the woods, he was so scared he almost turned back. If he hurried he could return the knife and hat to the kitchen and replace the money jar over the door, slide back into his cot, and no one would ever know he'd tried to run away. For running away he could be whipped again, and put in chains in the smokehouse. Slaves that ran away could be branded with a red-hot iron also, and they sometimes had to wear leg irons, or a neck collar with spikes, and some had an ear cut off.

Jonah paused in the bushes at the edge of the field and decided he'd better go back while there was still time. Maybe Mrs. Williams would help him when she returned from Flat Rock. Maybe she would even say she'd given him the fine Bible, and that she herself had taught him to read it. Maybe if he was careful he could get by. And if his manners were good he could serve in the tavern and make cider and work in the distillery. Maybe if he was lucky he could even save money enough to buy his freedom one day.

It was the burning in his back and on his legs that stopped him from turning back. But it wasn't just the fear of another whipping that prevented him from retracing his steps across the field. Jonah knew that he could never be a good Negro again. He'd been whipped for stealing a book that was already his. He would always be called a thief at the Williams Place and he couldn't submit to that daily humiliation. 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.

As soon as Jonah knew that he could not turn back, he remembered something important. He would need lucifers to start fires to cook whatever fish or game he could steal. And when it was rainy and cold in the mountains, he'd need them to build a fire to keep him warm. There was a box of friction matches in the kitchen near the knives. He'd been foolish to not grab the lucifers while he had a chance.

He was going to turn back to get the matches, but soon as he stepped out of the bushes a dog began to bark in the distance. No, he couldn't turn back. Jonah had to get as far as possible up the mountain before daylight. As soon as he found Jonah gone, Mr. Williams would get the sheriff and they'd form a party to go looking for him.

Rather than strike out through the woods and get lost in the dark, Jonah saw that he'd better take the Turnpike, at least tonight. He could travel faster and farther on the road, and now that he thought about it he saw it would be easier for men and dogs to follow his tracks in the woods than on the packed, much-traveled road. But soon as it got daylight he'd have to turn off the road and find a place to rest and sleep. It would be foolish to stay on the Pike in daytime. If he traveled by day he'd have to stick to the woods and thickets and skirt along the edges of remote fields.


  • Chasing the North Star is an epic journey, and Morgan’s vision of our dark past shines . . . Brilliantly detailed, deeply satisfying, and ultimately hopeful.” —Charles Frazier, author of Nightwoods and Cold Mountain
    “Richly imaginative and thoroughly well researched, Chasing the North Star walks the reader through an extensive and thrilling escape filled with fiery insight and deep personal conviction . . . [Morgan's] personal connection to the land, including its history and features, enables the reader to experience the thrilling escape vividly. His historical nuances and references are spot‑on. Chasing the North Star is an epic journey.” New York Journal of Books
    “A gorgeous book full of lush prose, compelling characters, and an epic journey across America ten years before the Civil War.” Chicago Review of Books
    “Adventurous, compelling . . . Remarkably, despite the horrors of slavery and the almost insurmountable obstacles to escape, this is far from a grim novel. Generously laced with humor, it becomes a story of more than survival. It is a story filled with courage and hope.” Greensboro News Record
    “Not only is the subject matter riveting, Morgan's language enhances the tension and defines his characters . . . Today, with racial and ethnic tensions again running high, this stark, terrifying story of perilous love and the search for peace is especially illuminating.” Knoxville News Sentinel
    “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.” Kirkus Reviews
    “Morgan’s latest is a grittily entertaining, smartly paced narrative about a fugitive slave. Morgan is a first‑rate storyteller; he plots his novel extremely well, and readers will find this journey captivating.” Publishers Weekly
    “Morgan . . . presents the reader with a convincing and richly imagined experience.” Booklist (starred review)

On Sale
Apr 5, 2016
Page Count
320 pages
Algonquin Books

robert morgan

Robert Morgan

About the Author

Robert Morgan is the bestselling author of numerous works of fiction—including the Oprah Book Club selection Gap Creek—and non-fiction, and is also an established poet with fourteen collections to his credit. Born in Hendersonville, NC, he teaches at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, where he is Kappa Alpha Professor of English.

Learn more about this author