Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr. | May 2012 | Agate Bolden | Paperback $16.00
Freeman, the new novel by Leonard Pitts, Jr., takes place in the first few months following the Confederate surrender and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Upon learning of Lee’s surrender, Sam — a runaway slave who once worked for the Union Army — decides to leave his safe haven in Philadelphia and set out on foot to return to the war-torn South. What compels him on this almost-suicidal course is the desire to find his wife, the mother of his only child, whom he and their son left behind 15 years earlier on the Mississippi farm to which they all “belonged”.
Freeman is an historical fiction novel, though a great many aspects of its settings and the events in the characters’ lives are not nearly as fictional as I’d wish them to be. The story follows 3 people — a free black man, his still-enslaved wife, and an idealistic Yankee schoolmarm — immediately following the conclusion of the American Civil War.
I actually read this book for Galveston Reads, a yearly community-wide “book club” sort of program organized by the local public library. They give out a limited number of free copies to anyone who wants to join, and they have a series of book-related events over the year. Freeman was specially chosen this year to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth (the official announcement of emancipation in Texas following the Civil War on June 19th).
This is an intense, highly emotional story. And how can it not be? The subject matter is incredibly difficult and the events leading up to, during, and after the Civil War had a huge – huge, huge, huge – impact on our country. Of course most Americans are aware of this, but if you’re outside the U.S. you may not know that some parts of our nation are still struggling with the effects of slavery and the war that ended it.
It’s a complex story, too, and I really appreciated the way that the author handled the white Southerners’ reactions and motivations. It makes me uncomfortable to admit this, but it necessarily affects the way I read this book and others like it: I am a product of Southern white privilege and all the unfortunate history that goes along with that. The residents of the town that refused to consider the needs of the former slaves in their midst could have been my ancestors. The violence done toward people who only hoped to attain basic human dignity is terrifying to the point of being unimaginable – but it doesn’t matter if it is hard to imagine, because it happened whether or not we’re comfortable with that truth.
I won’t go into too much detail about the plot, except to warn sensitive readers that there really are some disturbing occurrences, including rape, physical and psychological abuse, and murder. Pitts doesn’t sugar coat a thing. But for all that, the story is ultimately a hopeful one. Despite everything and everyone standing in their way, the 3 main characters do their damndest to pursue their goals.
Freeman is not without problems, of course. It starts slow. Occasionally the POV shifted within sections, so that in one paragraph we’d be getting a scene from Prudence’s eyes but in the next we’d be learning how Bonnie felt about the situation. It was a little distracting. I was also a little irritated by the way the “educated” characters wouldn’t use contractions at all. I understand that this was a stylistic choice to provide a contrast between the way they spoke and the way uneducated or poor people (black and white) spoke, but it made some bits of dialogue sound stilted and unrealistic.
Overall, I’m glad I got a chance to read this and to hear the author speak at a local event.
- Official website of Leonard Pitts, Jr.
- Miami Herald columns by Pitts
- Galveston Reads
- Juneteenth article from the Texas State Historical Association
Publication information: Pitts, Jr., Leonard. Freeman. Chicago: Agate Bolden, 2012. Print.
Source: Public library.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.