Even if the reader knows the sordid history of the period just after the Civil War, it’s doubtful that anything they have read will enrage them more than Leonard Pitts’ Freeman. The cruelty and depravity inflicted by the defeated white Southerners upon their former slaves is sickening; what's even more sickening is the idea that there are still people walking around today who think the same way and would perpetuate the same horrors if they could get away with it.
Be that as it may, this gripping and difficult novel remains a story of imperfect triumph for those former slaves and for the handful of whites who try to help them in this dangerous and bewildering postwar world. The protagonist is the former slave Sam Freeman, a Philadelphia librarian when the book opens. Though his job is relatively safe and his white employer is kind, at the end of the war he resolves, Odysseus-like, to return to the south and find his wife, Tilda.
Others are also determined to go south, either to find loved ones or right wrongs. One of them is Prudence Kent, the good-hearted but stubborn daughter of a passionate abolitionist and her “sister,” African-American Bonnie, who was raised with her. The two wind up in Buford, Mississippi, where they have the noble plan to open a school for freedmen in defiance of the white townsfolk. But even the denizens of Buford have nothing on the monstrousness of Captain James McFarland, the book’s Simon Legree. “Marse Jim” has no problem hunting down and murdering his ex-slaves who have the temerity to think they’re free. He doesn’t hesitate to blow away anyone who tries to help them, either.
A good story written by a good writer will keep you turning the pages and staying up past your bedtime, whether you want to or not. Pitts, a Pulitzer-winning columnist and the author of Before I Forget, keeps the reader hooked through outrage after outrage. The ending does not satisfy. It doesn’t slake one’s rage against the injustice of the whole ghastly era. Still, the ending Pitts gives us is honest and true. This, too, is the mark of a very good writer and a very worthwhile book.