About two-thirds of the way through Leonard Pitts Jr.’s powerful novel about post-Civil War America, a former slave owner remarks that while civilization began in Greece, Mississippi may well be “where it will end.”
Sam Freeman, an ex-slave who has just walked a thousand miles through a war-torn land of chaos and lawlessness, can only agree. In the several weeks since the war ended and he began his frightful odyssey south from Philadelphia, Sam has lost an arm, contracted a disabling infection in his foot, been beaten and stomped to within an inch of his life and witnessed any number of his fellow “freedmen” lynched, pressed back into de facto bondage, forcibly separated from their families or hunted down and shot like wild animals.
The North may have won the war, but in the nightmarish world of “Freeman” many of the worst horrors of slavery have not ended. Sam, a self-educated employee of the Philadelphia Free Library who fought as a Union soldier, decides to find his wife, Tilda, from whom he was sold away 15 years before. He knows that he has only the slimmest chance of succeeding.
“He ate what he could beg, slept where he could find whatever meager shelter, slipped invisibly as air past white people driving wagons down dusty roads or congregating on plank-board walks in war-smashed towns barely deserving of names. They didn’t see him. He was a one-armed Negro with bad feet. What was there to see?”
At about the same time, a wealthy young war widow named Prudence Kent and her black foster sister and soul mate, Bonnie, head south to fulfill a promise to their abolitionist father to establish a school for recently emancipated slaves. Meanwhile, Tilda, begins a journey of her own. Her former owner, Jim McFarland, a “slouch-bellied, sour-breathed” tyrant, forces her at gunpoint to accompany him west toward Arkansas to find a haven where he won’t have to “kowtow to Yankee domination.”
What ensues is a uniquely American epic of the little-known reign of terror between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction. Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and the author of several books, including the novel “Before I Forget,” is a compelling storyteller. Sam, Tilda and the madman “Marse Jim,” in particular, are unforgettable portraits. “Freeman” also abounds in memorable minor characters, nearly all of whom have been scarred by slavery. In an especially unsettling scene in southern Virginia, for instance, Sam encounters a half-crazed woman wearing “a head wrap and a thin old dress covered with patches, all of them in different colors, as though stitched together by a magpie.” She’s searching for her missing baby — snatched from her arms and sold away 20 years ago.
“Freeman,” with its tripartite narrative arc and vast geographical scope, is an ambitious book. At times, I was reminded of Samuel Johnson’s wry comment on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” that “none ever wished it longer than it is.” Some of the dialogue struck me as repetitive, especially in the sections dealing with Prudence’s efforts to establish the school for ex-slaves. When the plot lines of the novel converge in Mississippi, however, the pace quickly picks up again.
Like much of American history, “Freeman” is a heart-rending tragedy of what, at our very worst, human beings are capable of doing to one another. Still, Sam and Tilda, and Prudence and Bonnie, as well, show us how, through the dignity of their own humanity, fresh hope can sometimes rise from despair. “Freeman” is an important addition to the literature of slavery and the Civil War, by a knowledgeable, compassionate and relentlessly truthful writer determined to explore both enslavement in all its malignancy and also what it truly means to be free.
Mosher is the author of 10 works of fiction, including his Civil War novel, “Walking to Gatlinburg,” and two memoirs.