It seems that a book has to occasionally sit upon a shelf, gathering dust and spending time before finally being opened. Such was the case with John Ehle’s The Journey of August King. Have you ever done this? Bought a book and then let it sit, perhaps picking it up a few times, then putting it back, distracted by others or not yet ready to read it? A book that becomes hidden on the bottom of the pile or pushed further back on a shelf?
My journey with August King actually began with the movie that I happened upon while surfing channels on a gloomy afternoon more than a few years ago. I was, at first, drawn in by the lush scenery of mountains and rivers that I came to find out was North Carolina, and then by the slow, purposeful story that was unfolding.
It is the story of August King, coming home from the treacherous journey to town where he trades his season’s grain harvest for a milk cow, a boar, and two geese. August King, a recent widower, has had a good year. The abundance of his crops even allows him to buy fifty pounds of coffee, an extravagance for a farmer in 1815. Along the way, King encounters a runaway slave, Annalees Williamsburg. This changes the course of his journey, and of his life, as he first struggles with whether or not to help her to freedom, an unlawful act with harsh punishments. It changes Analees’s as well, whose harsh slaveholding master, also her father, is on rabid pursuit of her and another runaway.
I will warn you, there are a few moments of brutality, and the language is often raw and cruel and reflect the horrors of slavery: both the physical ones and the ones that gnawed at the spirit of a people. There are brutish men and there are kind folks, played out so beautifully in two children who see Annalee hidden in the August’s cart and do not report August.
Watching this beautifully rendered and atmospheric movie was a moving experience and I encourage you to see it. It is not a fast moving film. It is, however, an absorbing one.
The movie compelled me to find the book, published in 1971. It took me a while. I was finally able to find it on ebay. The Journey of August King moved from nightstand to bookshelf to box and new house, then, finally, the bookshelves here on the Cutoff. With a pile of books from the library, books to read for our book group, and well, you know how it goes.
Some books are worth the wait. They need to find their own time to shout from the shelves “Read me next. It is time. I have waited so long.” The Journeyof August King was worth the wait.
Ehle takes the reader along the paths of the woods and the mountains of North Carolina and the voice of August King resonates with the drawl and the timbre and the words and phrases that are often poetic and then make one cringe with the racial tones and slurs of the time. The reading makes one uncomfortable in the treatment of slaves and yet is beautiful to read as we follow his journey, watching him lose all his worldly possessions; his mare and his cow and his geese, then more. With each item that August abandons as he hastens his journey to home and to free Annalees, we see him come closer to redemption and a spiritual awakening. We also see the transformation of Annalees, who gains dignity as her freedom comes closer. It is as much a story of love, though not in the romantic sense, as it is of a man’s journey.
I hope you will find The Journey of August King and read it along your own journies with books. I also encourage you to see the movie. It is so well crafted and acted. Jason Patric plays August King and is remarkable in this role. Thandie Newton is Annalees, and she captures the young girl beautifully. Safe journey, wherever you are.