Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr. follows three main characters at the end of the Civil War. Tilda, a former slave woman freed by the end of the war. Her estranged husband, Sam Freeman, who had been a slave but managed to escape to the North. And Prudence Kent, a White woman from Boston whose father was wealthy.
Prudence has had a comfortable life compared to the other two main characters of the story. Through these three characters, we get very different perspectives on the time. Prudence as someone from the North going to the South. And the other two characters as people from the South who had first-hand experience as slaves.
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This offers an idea of what it might have been like to have been the human property of another human being. Receiving emancipation but having to live near the people who once owned you. And these people intend to use social and economic means to keep you enslaved.
Slave life had beaten Tilda down to the point that she’d stopped dreaming of freedom. Freedom was outside the idea of what she’d come to expect as a possibility for herself. When freedom presented itself, she didn’t know what it meant and couldn’t wrap her mind around the idea. As a result, she’s afraid to try moving beyond the control of her former master and explore what it means to be free.
Part of the issue is that her former master, Jim McFarland, is a crazy guy who has lost everything as a result of the Civil War. His family has died off, his property is gone, and he’s destitute. McFarland shares some similar experiences and losses with Tilda. In some ways, aside from social aspects, he’s not much better off than Tilda.
McFarland was a part of the rebel army and doesn’t recognize the “Yankee” government. He refuses to accept that Tilda is no longer his property. The South losing the war is a great insult to his ego and the North freeing the slaves is adding insult to injury. McFarland believes that having bought Tilda through legal means, she is still his property.
Wanting to get beyond the reach of the government, McFarland decides to leave Mississippi and go west into Arkansas. Armed and prone to violence, he marches Tilda along at gunpoint. Tilda is afraid to escape due to her past experiences with McFarland and some other events that take place at the start of their journey.
Of the three characters, I was most drawn to Tilda because of her vulnerability and the seeming hopelessness of her circumstances. She’s a very sympathetic character due to her backstory and the things she goes through during Freeman. The losses she’s endured, having her family broken up, being a human trying to survive as a slave, and the particular injustices she’s faced as a woman.
I prefer books that focus on one character because they can get deeper into character development. I didn’t like the other two characters as much as Tilda but understood their purpose by the end of the book. Their stories were all needed to balance the emotional heaviness of the book. Had Freeman, been all about Tilda, it would have been too draining and overwhelming. Switching between the three characters helped to give the reader a bit of a breather but also added to the suspense.
At the start of the book, I thought Sam was a bit of a snob. He made it a point not to scrape and bow which I completely understood. Yet, he seemed to go out of his way to show that he was better than the other Black characters. He was trying to prove his humanity but the way he went about it rubbed me the wrong way.
Sam was trying to protect his ego. He built himself up by making an effort to appear as more than the limited expectations and stereotypes projected on Black people. He was insufferable for much of the book. But, as the story progressed I grew to understand and sympathize with the way he tried to mask his insecurities.
It became evident that Sam wasn’t trying to belittle the Black people around him. He was going out of his way to prove his humanity, intelligence, and capabilities. So Sam put these characteristics on display when he felt challenged.
I started Freeman not liking Prudence and ended the book hating her. Prudence is from a completely different background from the other two characters. This gives rise to a major theme of the book: characters having a public and private face. There’s a disconnect between the way they see themselves, society views them, and the people they are.
For example, the larger society doesn’t view Tilda and Sam as competent or capable human beings. The society also doesn’t know or care about the hardships that they’ve faced. Yet, society regards Prudence’s father and his business partner as upstanding philanthropic men. We learn that these well-respected men have created these facades to make up for their past sins. There are also several characters in the South who present genteel facades that mask hate and a capability for great violence.
Freeman portrays Prudence as a brave but reckless character who is well-meaning and out to do the right thing at any cost. But, I thought she was a moron. Her supposed acts of bravery and determination reeked of recklessness and stubbornness. She also made decisions without considering that her actions could have major consequences for others.
Her selfishness snowballed because she’d made reckless decisions but things had a way of working out. She took this as a license to continue making reckless decisions. This turned me off from the character.
Bonnie is Prudence’s best friend with the two having grown up like sisters. Unlike Prudence, Bonnie is a Black woman, so while they grew up in the same household it was under different circumstances.
Bonnie was born in the South and purchased and freed by Prudence’s father. She was quite young when she left the South but has some knowledge of how different life is for Black people. This comes into play when Bonnie and Prudence set out for Mississippi to establish a school for former slaves in memory of Prudence’s father.
Bonnie is living a rather comfortable life in the Cafferty household. But, unlike Prudence, she is not one of the Cafferty children. Bonnie doesn’t have a mother, family, or life of her own. As a result, she experiences some loneliness and a sense of otherness living within the Cafferty household.
I was happy when it seemed she might have a chance to experience happiness and a sense of belonging through having her own family. Something that she’d been longing for. I also held out hope throughout Freeman that Bonnie would get tired of Prudence and her nonsense and would leave her behind.
Freeman explores navigating newfound freedom and the idea of what it means to be free. Tilda and Sam offer the perspective of two former slaves who are now navigating freedom. And there’s also Prudence who during this period faces restrictions as a woman in society. But, she has her father’s wealth and is far from her family which allows her the freedom to do as she pleases.
There’s a common thread throughout Freeman of reconnecting with lost loved ones and places left behind. Sam’s major goal throughout the book is reconnecting with Tilda. He’s not clear on his expectations but at the very least wants to see this person again with whom he’s shared momentous life events.
Another major theme is that both sides in the conflict around slavery saw themselves as being victims. Tilda, Sam, and the other former slaves in the book had experienced true hardship. Having had their humanity stripped away.
On the flip-side, there are the slave owners who’d experience the loss of the war and their slaves. The lives that they’d built for themselves, the promises that society had made to them, and the world that they knew had fallen apart.
We see the two sides trying to navigate these changes. The one side being violent and trying to seek retribution for perceived wrongs. And the other side trying to navigate freedom and the world being hostile towards them. There’s a major loss of identity when the way you view yourself and the world as you know it has now shifted and changed.
I enjoyed Freeman. It was an emotional roller coaster that had me in my feelings at quite a few points. The one drawback was that the language felt a bit hokey at points. The book was a quick read and I was able to finish it in about a week or two. Prepare to be in your feelings.
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