Book of the Week: Free Men – Katy Simpson Smith

This second novel by Katy Simpson Smith bears out the promise of her well-received first, The Story of Land and Sea. Trained as a historian, Smith brings not only verisimilitude to the table but a richly imaginative empathy and a strong sense of narrative structure–making her a triple threat when it comes to historical fiction. NPR pointed to this in its review of her first book saying that “Smith has a real gift for describing both hope and despair, which is one of the hardest things for an author to do well. She’s also gifted at drawing realistic, three-dimensional characters…absolutely a writer to watch.”

This new novel takes place in late 18th century Alabama and, as Kirkus comments, she “deftly evokes the swamp heat, fetid woods, and pitiless inhabitants of a barely settled region of the nascent United States. European immigrants run sugar plantations with the sweat of slave labor while running rum in a precarious partnership with the native Creek Indians…”

Free Men is the story of three strangers on the run and the European tracker bring them to justice. Smith tells the story in the alternating voices of these four men–and one of the many things I admire in this book is how completely original each voice is. It opens in the voice of Bob, a runaway slave and this part of the story has all the jazzy, hyped-up relentlessness of The Good Lord Bird. But when it shifts to the story of Cat, a white man caught in an initially unnamed despair, the tone becomes darkly musical, surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Add the wounded indignation of Istillicha, a Creek warrior looking reclaim lost standing in his tribe, and we are offered a kaleidoscopic perspective on life in that early, swampy frontier America.

The French tracker, LeClerc, has an interesting role in the story. He is an educated Old World European who fancies himself an anthropologist and student of the human heart. He aims to uncover what it is that binds these strangers from three very different cultures. My bookseller friend Bill Cusumano of Square Books in Oxford, MS, sums up a major theme of the book very eloquently:

I am totally impressed by her knowledge that this was always more of a multicultural society than history has admitted, that disparate groups were constantly forced together and learned from each other and assimilated so much from various cultures. She also has a very good grasp on how early American society was composed of so many people who prized individual freedom, in contrast to the structural world of Europe. It is wonderful how she uses LeClerc as a conduit for this phenomenon. Whether it was because America was populated by so many people from the lower strata who yearned for more, I do not know, but it was certainly unique for the time and, obviously, an outgrowth from the Enlightenment. Yet these groups could also be cooperative, if only to protect their own interests….

“The European countries either allowing or forcing their alienated people to populate the colonies helped to create a new type of thought and in certain psychological ways those enslaved or threatened, like the Native Americans, had much in common with them. She gives great voice to this and reveals a new world in the making.”

Initial reviews are set for the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World with more to come.

 “Set in 1788 and drawing from a historical incident, Smith’s searching second novel probes connection and isolation, forgiveness and guilt. In an American South where control shifts among American, European, and Native American presences, three men rob and kill a group of travelers….As the paths of pursuer and prey intersect, all four men face unexpected lessons about the nature of freedom and the need to belong. Like Smith’s debut, The Story of Land and Sea, this novel evokes the complexity of a fledgling America in precise, poetic language….rich with insights about history and the human heart.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Illuminating…An uncommon story of three men on the run as well as a complex tale about freedom of the individual and justice in society. There’s much to ponder after reading the last page.”
 — Library Journal

Free Men (9780062407597) By Katy Simpson Smith. $26.99 hardcover. 2/16/16 on sale.


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