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With the movie “Django Unchained” sparking so much debate in America about the “real” lives of slaves, I found Leonard Pitts Jr.’s novel Freeman to actually be a perfect companion to the movie, minus the extreme violence that Tarantino is known for. The main storyline of Freeman is that of a freed slave and former Union soldier, Sam, deciding to venture south to look for his wife, whom he was separated from 15 years earlier after being sold. The idea that a freeman will venture so far, do anything to be reunited with the woman he loves is the central theme of this novel and “Django Unchained.” It is this central theme as to why I loved the novel (and the movie). The notion of what a man would do for the woman he loves, especially during and immediately after slavery, especially because it was “believed” during that time period that African-Americans weren’t considered human beings and “believed” to not possess human emotions, when Sam and many men like him displayed the contrary. When men like Sam and Django decide to take the treks to their wives, they are the epitome of love.
Freeman is not only a love story, it is a story of a torn country striving to find its identity. The novel is split into three story lines, each showing a different aspect of the changing world America awoke to when the Civil War finally ended. The first is Sam Freeman, who searches for his wife; the next is Prudence and Bonnie, a Bostonian socialite and her freed best friend/sister, who travel to Buford, Mississippi to open a school for the freed slaves; and Tilda, Sam’s wife, who is too afraid to leave her master and is taken on a journey by him.
All three story lines are compelling and are historically accurate. I commend Pitts for his thoroughness in his research, here. While the novel is not made to educate, if one has knowledge of the Restoration period, all three story lines ring very true. The only issue with having three story lines, not necessarily voices as the Prudence/Bonnie sections are told from both points of view, is that sometimes the narrative felt a bit dragged down. Pitts spends such a significant amount of time with each of the three main characters at the beginning that the novel is actually very slow to start, which is troubling because readers might put down the novel and not get to experience the richness and beauty that is Freeman. The pace of the novel doesn’t actually pick up, or rather the tension isn’t felt, until almost 120 pages in. While the Prudence/Bonnie storyline ultimately did pay off, I feel those sections were the slowest and could have been trimmed down, or begun when the ladies arrived in Buford.
While Freeman is slow to start, once the tension begins to build, Pitts does an excellent job of putting his characters (and by extension the reader) through trials. I would constantly remind myself whenever Sam experienced a complication during his journey that I was on pg.xx of 400 and therefore he’ll survive somehow. The how being the question that kept me reading and made me care about all the characters. Pitts makes some daring choices with the characters at certain points of the novel that might not agree with some readers, but I feel those choices were worth it. Pitts’ characters are very real and often don’t make smart choices. The heart of the novel are Pitts’ characters and what makes Freeman a compelling novel.