Free Men: A novel by Katy Simpson Smith
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Harper (February 16, 2016)
Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Historical, Literary Fiction
Copy Received from Publisher
In 1788 three men converge in the southern woods of what is now Alabama: Cat, an emotionally scarred white man; Bob, a garrulous black man fleeing slavery; and Istillicha, who seeks retribution after being edged out of his Creek town’s leadership.
In the few days they spend together, the makeshift trio commits a shocking murder that soon has the forces of the law bearing down upon them. Sent to pick up their trail, a probing French tracker named Le Clerc must decide which has a greater claim: swift justice or his own curiosity about how three such disparate, desperate men could act in unison.
Katy Simpson Smith skillfully brings into focus men whose lives are both catastrophic and full of hope—and illuminates the beating heart of a new America. A captivating exploration of how four men grapple with the importance of family, the stain of guilt, and the competing forces of power, love, race, and freedom.
From the richness of the character’s stories, to the lingering sadness and emptiness revealed through clever recalls of fleeting memories, the author has created a phenomenal tale of four (seemingly) different men, socially, culturally, economically, and religiously in a world that was still building itself. The further the reader gets into the book, the more you realize that these four men from different worlds are actually not at all that different or that far removed from one another.
This book is probably the most lyrical and poetic historical fiction book I have read in a really, really long time. There were so many passages and sentences I found myself going back to re-read them for their beauty, sadness and philosophical truth.
While I do not want to give too much away, I feel I should comment on the intricate design, characters structure and pacing Ms. Smith has built for this book. From Cat, the forever burdened martyr, who has never fully been able to out grow his stunted, child-like mind or behavior.
“I could not tell if we were damned or saved. They did not make that clear. If what my body did mattered. Forgiveness, though, was like a wheel going around. My body moved out into darkness, my body moved back in. As long as it got on the wheel in time. In time being before my body died.” –Cat
To Bob, the naïve wanderer, forever searching for his own dream, sense of direction and purpose, with a desperation you can understand but also be worry of.
“The people I have loved aren’t taking this walk—my mother, stolen from me; my brother, who stole himself; my children, who don’t know what it means to steal”—Bob
And Istillicha, the loose feather in the wind, ghosting seemingly day by day, clinging to the hope of one day achieving his goal of taking back his home, striked me as being clear minded and the most inquisitive of the trio even with Le Clerc flush on their trail.
“I have nothing to do with these men. I met them two nights ago, and I’m not even sure that the white man’s name is his name. But my skin flinches at the thought of parting, as though they’re the blanker between my body and the ghosts. They’re the sticks that need arranging…If I leave them who will understand me? And where will they go without me?”—Istillicha
With Le Clerc, the forever curious science/social behavior philosopher whose own like bore no excitement or clear purpose as a nobleman in Paris, sets out as a sort of bounty hunter in America. On a quest for justice to locate Bob, Cat and Istillicha, he discovers that his thirst to understand the men behind the crime and their connection to one another to be greater than his desire to capture them.
“There is a desperation about these men that suggests they do not reside on the rung of the criminal but, like all men here, are pursuing what might be called advancement, or hope. Their success or failure will, I can’t help but believe, be a reflection on the project of this country. And yet I am the only man on their trail, the only man who may behold their fates. This strikes me as peculiarly lonely.” –Le Clerc
Besides the clear and obvious message of freedom this book explores, it simultaneously presents the message of togetherness and a bond of these bloodless ‘creeping’ brothers forging onward in search of a better future for themselves.
It was so wonderful how Bob, Cat and Istillicha subconsciously and unknowingly gravitated toward and looked out for each other even before the incident on the creek and how their time together seemed to linger with them after they split apart. The ending was a little mixed; kind of open ended, with a bittersweet level of closure for everyone. It is definitely a book I would enjoy re-reading. 🙂
Katy Simpson Smith is the author of a study of early American motherhood, We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, and a novel, The Story of Land and Sea. She lives in New Orleans.
Connect with Katy Simpson Smith through her website.
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