Every now and then I'll read a novel that worms its way into my consciousness, quietly asserting itself immediately into my long-term memory, bypassing the spots taken up by more forgettable fiction. A Free State is one of those memorable novels. Tom Piazza masterfully captures life in the mid-nineteenth century, bringing to life a southern plantation, the filthy streets of Philadelphia, and a personal, unforgettable portrait of slavery.
As the son of a plantation owner and a slave woman, Henry Sims was never a typical field slave. He learned to read, and played the banjo and sang for the master and his guests. As he grew up and the life and abuse of the plantation became untenable, he made his escape. He found his way to the minstrel shows of Philadelphia, at first passing himself as Spanish, but on stage wearing blackface over his lighter, mixed-race skin.
In spite of his incognito appearance, his banjo playing renown catches up with him when a slave hunter tracks him down. In the hunt, the real ugliness and evil of slavery manifests, especially as personified in Tull, the slave hunter. The stories of Tull's exploits, surely based on actual practices, will turn the stomach of any reader.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Free State. Piazza doesn't make the slave owner out to be pure evil. (Well, he's pretty evil.) More notably, he doesn't present Henry as some pure, noble character. He is very human, and not necessarily a great moral figure, but he is one with whom the reader can have compassion. Perhaps the most moral figure is the abolitionist senator, but he was also a product of his times, even if more enlightened than most.
Piazza captured the views of slavery and slaves from several perspectives. Even those helping him out wanted him to fit a certain mold: "To the abolitionists, Henry was a representative of a subjugated people, nothing less, and nothing more." His friend in the minstrel show reflected on the idyllic plantation scene they used as a backdrop on stage: "I knew that Negroes we depicted so fancifully were, in real life, subject to harsh treatment and compulsory labor." Getting know Henry, he realizes that "I had let myself be deceived, though I should have known better. And now, from behind that beautiful, pernicious illusion, reality had come snarling." As mentioned, Tull's attitude of Henry as property or contraband contrasts with the senator's beginning to see Henry as, if not an equal, at least as a peer and companion.
Through all of this, Piazza never seems to impose 21st century moral standards on 19th century characters. I thought Piazza artfully captured the tone of the times. In fact, I found myself wondering if A Free State was actually written in the 19th century. Black slavery in the United States seems like ancient history, but the attitudes and history are still relevant today. This is a novel I highly recommend.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!