Sunday, January 31, 2016

Free Men

Title:  Free Men
Publication Information:  Harper. 2016. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0062407597 / 978-0062407597

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through Edelweiss free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The first sign that order had slipped its axis was that the slave who came to tell us of the murders was riding a horse."

Favorite Quote:  "I knew the circle of the world, and it had sharp edges."

In Conecuch County, Alabama lies a tributary of Conecuch River commonly known by the gruesome name of Murder Creek. The story goes that along that creek in 1788, three men came upon a traveling party and ruthlessly murdered the travelers and ran off with their money. The three perpetrators were the unlikely combination of a white man, a runaway slave, and an American Indian.

In Free Men, Katy Simpson Smith builds a fictional tale around this incident. It is a story of the murder and of the hunt for the murderers. More than that, this book is a character study of four men. Cat is a damaged, distraught white man running from his life and his grief and searching desperately to belong to someone and to someplace. Bob is a runaway slave, who, in his quest for freedom, leaves his wife and children behind in slavery. Istillicha is an American Indian, forced out of his home and tribe because of internal strife; his goal is revenge and redemption. Chasing this group is Louis Le Clerc Milfort, a European man who is a guide, a bounty hunter, and a student of humanity.

In actual chronology, this book covers only a short span of time - March 6, 1788 to March 19, 1788. Each chapter tells the story from a different perspective, primarily that of one of these four men. In their reflections and musings, the book builds the background that leads to this moment. It explains the journey that brings each man to this particular place and this particular action at this particular time.

Socially, economically, and legally, these men couldn't be any more different. Through their diverse backgrounds, the book creates an image of how different life was at the time depending on the color of your skin and your upbringing. Cat is an orphan, passed from caretaker to caretaker, living in poverty and with no stability. Bob is born into plantation work and into slavery and all the horrors that entails. Istillicha is the offspring of tribal leadership, but infighting and war lead to a dramatic change in his position. Le Clerc is a French nobleman, with the rights and privileges that come with that identity.

As different as these men are, their stories have dramatic similarities also. Their stories all go back to childhood and all involve the women in their lives. Elements of love are found as are elements of physical and emotional abuse. A sense of desperation seems to follow all four men as well. Perhaps, it is these similarities that draws Cat, Bob, and Istillicha together on their journey. Despite the horrific crime and despite Le Clerc's admission of his actions in the name of justice, the book elicits pity for all four men. The writing makes this story intensely personal. Despite the fact that the point of view shifts with every chapter, the book manages to remain very personal and very connected throughout.

Underlying the entire book, as the title implies, is the concept of freedom and what form that may take. Freedom from slavery. Freedom from the expectations of others. Freedom from our own memories. Freedom to forge our own path. Freedom both literal and figurative is at the heart of these men's stories. The essential question of the book because that of freedom. Does each man attain what freedom means to him and will you, the reader, agree with that definition of freedom and with the cost of attaining that freedom? The book will leave you thinking about that question long after it ends.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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