This historical fiction book follows, in blow-by-blow manner, the journey of the 18-year-old slave Jonah Williams to the North and to freedom following a beating by his master in South Carolina. He is soon joined in his attempt at escape by a young slave woman, Angel, who decides to hitch her star to Jonah and follow him to gain her own freedom.
In a way it is something of an escaping-slave version of the 1987 book Hatchet, the Newbery Honor-winning young-adult wilderness survival novel by Gary Paulsen. Jonah has to overcome a great deal of adversity and a large learning curve to get what he needs to survive. He, along with Angel when he is eventually joined by her, manages in part by a great many felicitous turns of events, in circumstances when making it to the North alive and without mutilation or death was never a sure thing. It might even be said that Jonah and Angel experienced more luck than was probable.
In any event, the story kept me turning the pages. But I had a couple of strongly-felt criticisms of it.
One is the writing. The descriptions of the changing landscape are well written, but I did not think the dialogue sounded realistic. Rather, I thought it ranged from sophomoric to wooden to improbable in many cases.
My biggest problem, however, was with the character of Angel. While I liked Angel’s perseverance and pluck, I found it difficult to believe that so much rape and abuse by men could be so elevating for her self-esteem, making her feel “beautiful” and “wanted.” On the contrary, her portrayal was alarmingly close to the white stereotype of black women as inherently licentious, basically sexualized animals. It was, in my view, a repulsive characterization. In addition, I thought that the lines she spoke or thought were pretty appalling, showing not much insight into what a female in her circumstances might be thinking, at least in my opinion.
Evaluation: If the author had stuck to the story of the male escaping slavery rather than adding in a female, I think it would have been a much better book. I’m trying my best not to see the author as sharing or being complicit in the salacious and degrading gaze of the white men in the book towards Angel, but it’s not easy.
Jonah’s story: 3/5
Angel’s story: .5/5
Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2016