Katy Simpson Smith, once again, beautifully weaves nature alongside the lives of her characters in her second novel – FREE MEN is based on actual figures in history – about a disparate group: runaway slave, white man, Creek Indian (and, to a lesser degree, a Frenchman tracking the trio).
The novel introduces the characters of this unlikely grouping, present day (1788), but then circles back to separate sections telling the backstories of these men. All are told heartrendingly and create depth to the characters while aiding the central question of the story, which the Frenchman, LeClerc contemplates throughout: Is human existence both practical and predictable? Or are there exceptions to human interactions?
The three characters will answer this question for you as they make personal journeys each, leaving you amused, sad, and contemplative.
The writing (and period details) are simply gorgeous:
My brother Primus was dark and shiny, like someone had wrapped an old brown sheet around a boy of gold.
The rain catches in my eyelashes, making little bubbles of the road, the pines, the palmetto spikes. I don’t brush them off right away but let them play around with my sight, ballooning some things, washing others away.
I heard a bird settle near. It sang like a wren and perched on my back. Its tail bobbed against my shoulder. I was its earth.
I have sat and watched so many things, my legs are criminals.
Scars crossed faces like maps. Bodies smelled of dirt and decaying food caught between teeth. As men passed me, the pines breathed after them, exhaling a sweetness into their wake, washing the path clean of their scent.
He’s like water the way his face holds moods.
FREE MEN is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, the dreams we chase, and the people we call family. Recommended for readers who love literary historical fiction and who want to learn more about this tumultuous period of American history when Native people were displaced, Africans were in chains, and the white man was spreading his beliefs and customs like a wildfire across the newly formed United States.
(A version of Melissa Crytzer Fry’s review of FREE MEN by Katy Simpson Smith was published at GoodReads on Feb 12, 2020. It is reposted here with the permission of the reviewer.)