In his tale of two voices, Morgan plunges deep into the mountains of the Carolinas and transports us to plantation life in a scenario that
bears little resemblance to the world of today. Torture--as well as the rigorous and ongoing battle to survive--is recounted with gruesome clarity. Jonah and Angel’s journey
north toward freedom is rife with challenges as they encounter cruelty and kindness, starvation and capture, rogues and victims.
Morgan’s ability to create Jonah’s compelling voice comes to fruition when he decides to run away from Mr. Williams’ plantation the day he turns eighteen. From the hot days and sultry nights working in the cotton fields and cornfields on the Williams Plantation in the foothills of South Carolina just north of Greenville, Jonah is picked out as a “moon baby” to serve the needs of family matriarch, Mrs. Williams, and her two young children. Jonah is able to observe the children’s lessons,
and the words from the books thrill him, even though “nobody but white folks are supposed to read.” Jonah is captivated by the newspapers and their stories about slaves running away to the North,
the Underground Railroad, the abolitionists, and how they are told to follow the “North Star.” Although most get caught by men with guns and horses and hound dogs, the understanding is that
if you do make it to the North “people would help you.”
From the bare bones of Jonah’s story, Morgan builds a thoughtful and ruminative narrative
seen through Jonah’s eyes as he experiences everything from the ravages of a whipping to the loyalty of Angel, who seduces him at “a jubilee” in the woods at an isolated place where the Negros go at night to sing and dance and have fun without a preacher. In between, Morgan crafts a tale of what it means to survive and to be a slave, to be constantly judged by standards that apply only to white folks who are sometimes kind but more often cruel and uncaring.
After being whipped for stealing a book that was given to him as a gift, Jonah decides to plot his escape by studying maps and the chain of mountains that runs all the way to the
Northern states. He knows full well that he’ll never again be a good Negro. Knowing that he will never turn back, Jonah takes only a knife, his hat, and his mother’s money, with
only vague hopes and no plans--except to get far enough into the mountains before daylight and before anyone knows he’s gone. Jonah’s first encounter with Angel is sexual and almost magical, her innate attraction to him setting her on a path that cements her loyalty to Jonah and provides the catalyst for her to turn her back on the world of Master Thomas and his big house with all of his “fine things.” Early on, Angel realizes she has a value she didn’t know about before: “my power and my value is in the softness of my skin, and new breasts and the roundness of my butt.”
Morgan writes in a robust, bracing fashion, telling his story from both Jonah and Angel’s perspectives
as they are sometimes separated and then miraculously find each other again.
Angel’s stomach twists with a mixture of fear and excitement; for the first time, she’s conscious of being in a place she would never have expected to consider. Jonah is buoyed along by the promise of freedom, knowing that somewhere above the rain and wind and thunder, the North Star is constantly shining, “calm and bright and everlasting.” Sometimes strength comes from
a piece of cornbread or a baked potato, and most folks are happy to send him on his way a soon as possible, perhaps because they suspect he’s a runaway. At other times, Johan is driven by the fear of white people and the depth of his loneliness and homesickness--and also by his honey-skinned Angel, who has a sharp tongue and has a special knack for belittling him.
Possessing a good dose of common sense, tenacity, and guts, Jonah is able to survive in this harsh mountain land of rutted mud and dense woodland,
enduring a flood, prison, the vindictiveness of bootleggers, and the cruelty of Mr. Wells, a brothel owner who does terrible things to his girls and has a malice “that shines in his eyes and around his mouth.” The road becomes a refuge for Jonah and Angel. Jonah knows that when he gets to the end, he will either be in chains or dead--or in Canada and free.
Written like an old-world tone-poem, Morgan’s lyrical style carries us back in time and roots us into a landscape of great beauty. The author dramatizes Jonah and Angel’s plight: frightened and hungry, they often have little choice but to seek help from people who seem intent on destroying the last sliver of their dignity. With the viciousness of Jonah and Angel’s broken world, the story rumbles along, carefully balancing Jonah’s stubborn pledge of hope against his perilous flight to freedom.