If anything, Ilyon Woo's subtitle, "An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom," undersells her spellbinding book of nonfiction. It's the story of Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved couple who fled a Georgia plantation in 1848, with light-skinned Ellen (her father was her owner) disguised as a white man and William posing as her slave. Woo divides the book by geographical legs of their escape, which creates suspense within the 12 sections about whether the Crafts will make it to their next destination.
Woo's occasionally academic writing works because it gives us confidence when she uses narrative nonfiction techniques to fill in "likely" or "probable" details that aren't available in the historical record. But "Master Slave" is propulsive storytelling, powered by breathless cliffhangers like this corker: "William's muscles twitched and softened, his breath grew long. It was about the worst possible time to succumb to sleep."
Chris Hewitt is a Star Tribune writer and critic.
Master Slave Husband Wife
By: Ilyon Woo.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $29.99.