New Fiction: A Free State – Tom Piazza

Novelist, music critic, and Treme writer Piazza finds a sweet spot for his varied talents in this textured historical novel about slavery and popular music in the 19th century America.

It’s a spare, fast-paced novel about a runaway slave. As the reader digs in, one comes to see it’s also a story about economics—about how a poor white man and black man might throw in together in adversity—a vivid look at the popular musical culture of the time, and a shocking depiction of racism’s entitlement.

“In Piazza’s well-told historical novel, 19-year-old Henry Sims, an enterprising runaway slave from a Virginia plantation, arrives in Philadelphia in 1855 with a banjo and prodigious music talent…Piazza gives a fascinatingly detailed portrayal of 19th-century minstrelsy, a ‘national sensation’ that could only legally be performed by white men wearing dark grease paint…. Henry’s white plantation master (and biological father) back in Hopewell, Va., hires Tull Burton, an odious and cruel bounty hunter, to track down and return him….Piazza’s novel vividly depicts a cultural phenomenon through Henry’s harrowing journey.”
Publishers Weekly

Tom Piazza’s new novel, A Free State, is a book to savor. On the face of it, it is a book about an escaped slave, a blackface minstrel troupe, and a slave hunter in antebellum Philadelphia, and concerns what happens when these three elements collide. However, in Piazza’s hands, what could be an oft-told tale becomes something else entirely. A Free State explores questions of masking and identity and whether or not people can choose their identities or even their destinies. Even the title takes on new meaning as the book progresses, and leaves the reader with as many questions as answers by the end.”
— Kelly Burchfield, Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN

“A thoughtful examination of the intertwining of race and culture—as well as a truly scary portrait of a genuine psychopath.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“[A] wonderful depiction of a relatively unknown (or at least misunderstood) form of by-gone entertainment, and Piazza did it justice in presenting, not only minstrelsy itself, but also the conflicting emotions it generated in many of its performers.”
–Mary Grey James, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN

A Free State (9780062284129) by Tom Piazza. $25.99 hardcover. 9/15/15 on sale.

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