How hard is it for a white person to really understand the black experience well enough not to get into trouble when speaking about hot-button matters of community concern?
Ask Hillary Clinton. Or ask her husband, the former president. Both have spent their lives working to improve the economic conditions of blacks and to increase the opportunities available to them. They take pride in their close associations with African Americans. But, when it comes to talking about race, they have proved that anybody can get into trouble.
It makes one wonder why a white author like North Carolina native and bestselling author Robert Morgan would take on a project that involves writing from the perspectives of two escaped slaves making their ways from enslavement to someplace where they can be free.
Morgan grew up in the mountains near Hendersonville close to where his popular novel, “Gap Creek,” was set. His latest, “Chasing the North Star,” begins in nearby South Carolina, where a crafty teenaged runaway slave named Jonah Williams begins a northward journey towards freedom. Along the way, his adventures and his contacts with the people he meets are reminiscent of those of Inman, the Civil War soldier in Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.”
Early on he meets a young enslaved woman named Angel, who decides to follow him. Sometimes together, sometimes separated, they make their sometimes different ways towards freedom, beginning in a stolen small boat drifting past Asheville on the French Broad River, then walking to Kingsport, stopping at the backdoors of big houses and begging for a piece of cornpone or something else to eat. In Roanoke, Va., they find work in a high-class brothel.
There are close calls and adventures on every pathway and at every stop.
After a miraculous escape from jail in Winchester, Va., and a dangerous ride in a railroad boxcar, the two make their way into Pennsylvania and, finally, to Ithaca, N.Y.
Morgan himself has traveled that same route, from where he grew up in the Carolinas to Ithaca, where he has long taught at Cornell.
“They were in more trouble than they knew,” Morgan told me when we talked about the book recently. He was referring to the Fugitive Slave Act, which made all slaves, even those who escaped to the North, subject to being captured by bounty hunters and returned to their owners.
Morgan’s Jonah and Angel won me over with their spirit, determination, and the craftiness and luck that got them out of every difficult situation. After every episode, I wanted to keep reading to see how they would get to and through the next challenge.
Still, I wondered whether African American readers would respond positively to an adventure of two blacks created by a white man.
I think Morgan has approached the task sensitively. For instance, instead of having Jonah and Angel speak in a heavy dialect that might be seen as patronizing, their speech is more like that of modern teenagers.
I pressed Morgan about the risks of a contemporary white male getting into the shoes and mindsets of young, enslaved people living 160 years ago.
In response, he scolded me a little bit. He explained that good fiction cannot just be writing about ourselves or what we know already. Otherwise, the result is simply autobiography. The best fiction, he says, comes with characters the author creates based on careful research and then steps into those characters, like actors playing important roles.
A good author, Morgan says, has to be like a good actor and fill the role of the created characters. It is no accident, he told me, “that the world’s greatest writer (Shakespeare) was an actor.”
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.