Review: 'Freeman' by Leonard Pitts

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 7, 2012

SALISBURY – Op-ed writer and novelist Leonard Pitts Jr. gives his readers a daunting, inspiring, yet horrid novel of the post-Civil War period with his new book, “Freeman.” Tracing the paths of two primary characters, with a background cast of dozens, or thousands, depending on one’s perspective, “Freeman” basically begins at the time of Lee’s surrender at Gettysburg. The novel follows the post-war pursuits of Sam Freeman and Prudence Kent on their independent ventures, ventures which will collect and coincide at the novel’s end.
Sam Freeman is an escaped slave living in Philadelphia, working for Mary Cuthbert at a library; Sam was lucky in that he was owned as a slave by a woman who believed in educating her Negroes. He is very literate, very well read, and speaks with very formal English regardless of who he is with. He is, however, a man of sorrow, as he has not seen his wife, Tilda, for 15 years.
When they got married, they “jumped the broom,” the only way a slave couple could tie the knot at the time; it was as formal as it needed to be. Their son died trying to escape with Sam; for this Sam feels Tilda never forgave him. With Lee’s surrender, with the coming of the end of the war, a moment Sam has long awaited has arrived. Sam gives up his post at the library, packs a few of his meager things, and sets out on foot for the thousand mile walk back to his former plantation in Buford, Miss., in search of the only woman he ever loved, Tilda.
Further up the eastern shore, in Boston, lives Prudence Kent, a woman of social standing and financial means. Not so long in the past Prudence lost her father, but he has left her a legacy. Her father was a self-made man in the furniture industry, a business he learned from a black man with whom he then became a partner. The furniture business allowed him to accumulate much, including land and slaves, in Mississippi. At first, he would bring a slave home to Boston every year and set the slave free; eventually he freed all of his slaves, winning no popularity contests in Mississippi.
One of those slaves he brought home was a child named Bonnie; this child would grow up in their house and be as Prudence’s sister. Part of the legacy left to Prudence is that she is to go to Buford, Miss., to a warehouse bought by her father, and establish a school for the Negro children. With Lee’s surrender, it is time for her mission, and she takes Bonnie, her soulmate and “sister,” with her.
As Sam Freeman slowly makes his way on foot to Mississippi, he encounters the remnants of a devastated country which is still in the quagmire of war.
He has barely crossed the bridge out of Philadelphia to find the fear of a people, white, who do not yet know how to react to the people that have just been set free. And this, despite the fact that Sam Freeman did in fact serve in the Union Army as a soldier after escaping his bonds, but before his position in the library.
But on this journey, Sam finds that he must become the person that these people he meets expect him to be, not the person he is. He must put on his slave mentality to survive and advance, and even then, even then, Sam will suffer much in his journey, physically, mentally and spiritually.
Prudence and Bonnie have a much easier journey from Boston south, though Bonnie finds she must make excuses for her Negro “sister” the further they journey. They are traveling by ship and are accompanied by many crates containing, basically, a school. However, both Prudence and Bonnie are very strong-willed, and Bonnie especially knows how to negotiate to make situations go a little easier, though at times she must bite her tongue to do so.
Once they arrive at their initial destination and arrange wagons for transport, once they arrive in Buford, the trouble begins. First they must win the hearts and minds of the former slaves, but that is easy compared to winning the same from the white population, because for these people the war is not over, and even if it is, as far as they are concerned, the old rules still apply.
As the novel “Freeman” unfolds, both parties will find allies and enemies, sometimes in unexpected places. Both parties will suffer unbelievable devastation and loss of the most personal nature. And both parties will carry with them, but also leave in their wake, a trail of grief. Both parties will finally touch the Holy Grail they have been seeking, and yet both will have the greatest difficulty holding on to the very goal they have wished to achieve. Change is within, change comes from within, and sometimes it can take a long time for that change to move beyond the personal to the outside world. Prudence and Sam find this out on their own, and then they share it together, and then there is a winning surrender, but only parts, not the whole, survive.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is the only op-ed columnist that I read without fail; he writes with a voice that is always fair and balanced yet can be stringent and demanding when necessary. He tackles problems and situations that others are unwilling to respond to, and he will point fingers when others turn away.
As an op-ed writer, he is a national gift. I had the opportunity to hear him speak, and chat briefly with him, when he was in Salisbury at Catawba College several years ago, and I will always remember that.
The novel “Freeman” is equal to Pitts’ best writing, and is as hard-hitting as it is heartbreaking. The writing is exceptional, the characters are real and well-developed, the story not only believable but in all likelihood probably true in its own way, with countless variations. It looks at a time and a place that we know not enough about, and very likely because, at least down South, we don’t want to.
Reconstruction was hard on the South, and for many, especially in the lower South, the war never ended with the surrender. As David Goldfield says, even today, there are those who are “still fighting the Civil War.”