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Free Men: A Novel by Katy Simpson Smith

Free Men: A Novel

by Katy Simpson Smith

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I will admit, it takes a lot for a southern writer to impress me and the fact that this book didn't shouldn't go against the author's excellent writing and storytelling abilities. I could tell the author had done plenty of research and character development to form this tale, but I just couldn't get into the story. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Apr 26, 2016 |
Katy Simpson Smith opens her latest novel, Free Men, with a quote from Albert James Pickett's 1851 book, History of Alabama, and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period.

"About this time, a bloody transaction occurred in the territory of the present county of Conecuh....The part consisted of a Hillabee Indian, who had murdered so many men, that he was called Istillicha, the Man-slayer --- a desperate white man, who had fled from the States for the crime of murder, and whom, on account of his activity and ferocity, the Indians called the Cat --- and a blood-thirsty negro, named Bob."

And this is the jump off point for Smith's novel. 1788. She puts this unlikely trio together, on the run from not just their pasts, but a murder they all have a hand in. Smith creates detailed back stories for each of them even as they run towards what they hope will be a better life. Chasing them is another white man, just as determined that they be captured.

I loved that Free Men was based on documented historical fact. Each man is given a chapter and a unique voice. Smith's prose are rich with details, descriptions, emotions, hopes, dreams, fears and more. Freedom, guilt and relationships with women are themes Smith explores through each set of eyes. Free Men is not a book you can rush through. Smith's pacing is slower and her work is quite beautiful, but I did find myself having to put the book down every so often, returning later to pick up the story, as I found it to be a heavy read. But a good one. ( )
  Twink | Mar 18, 2016 |
Three men meet on the road in Southern Alabama. Bob is fleeing slavery. Istillicha, a Creek Indian, has left his village after being pushed out of leadership. Cat is a white man who has suffered a trauma. Together, they commit a crime. As their story unfolds, we learn their history through flashbacks. It is these sections, even more than the action of their crime and escape, that I found most compelling. I'm a fan of character-driven novels, and understanding what brought these three men together kept me reading. My only mild complaint was with the ending. The multipart epilogue wrapped up some of the threads too tightly for me. But overall, I really enjoyed this one. ( )
  porch_reader | Mar 11, 2016 |
This story is based on actual documented historical characters:

Bob is a black slave who escapes from his Spanish master in Pensacola, Florida, leaving behind his wife Winna and daughters to seek his freedom. Bob and Winna didn’t choose one another, but were put together by his master, after Bob was denied the woman he loved to begin with. On the run, he meets up with a white man called Cat who has labeled himself a killer, as well as a Muskogee Indian by the name of Istillicha, or "Man-slayer".

Cat is a rather enigmatic character, not speaking much of his past, but Istillicha is seeking revenge of the woman who wronged him. The three join up together and wind up involved in a mass murder and robbery, which leads to them being hunted by a Frenchman by the name of Le Clerc who has been living with Creeks (otherwise known as Muskogee, the same tribe as that of Istillicha), where he has been documenting "the divergences of man". Le Clerc has a history as a bounty hunter, and meter of justice, all while studying the very men he is hunting.

The book shifts perspectives between these men, as well as that of Bob's wife Winna. Bob begins with his story as a young slave boy and life with his mother and big brother in Virginia. He is later sold, and finds himself in Pensacola, owned by a master who decides to pair him up with a female slave from a neighboring plantation. Bob and wife Winna make due, finding a certain comfort and solace in one another, but Bob is restless. He remembers his brother's tales of freedom and of a black man on a donkey.

Eventually he gains his master's trust and is given the freedom to ride a horse to trade rum with the Creeks, taking him from the plantation for days at a time. This trust and freedom is what allows Bob to escape undetected one day.

Oh, this was a hard review for me. I wanted to love this book. I was introduced to the author through her last novel The Story of Land and Sea, which I enjoyed, and I'm a fan of slave narratives and southern lit. But this is a tough one for me. At times there was beautiful prose, and other times it was very trying and even boring.

The narrative of Cat (which was unfortunately one of the longest chapters) was very difficult for me to get through. The writing used to relay his tragic narrative was stilted and draining, and oftentimes rambling. I know it is symbolic of his mind, and a useful tool toward that end, but knowing that didn’t make reading it any easier. But then I really enjoyed reading Winna’s narrative, as well as Istillicha. Le Clerc and Bob were okay, but Cat was almost unbearable. If I hadn’t had a commitment to read the book, I may have given up on it during Cat's long period. And that would have been a shame, because it would have meant missing out on Winna, and Istillicha, and a really clever story wound up in there.

I know a lot of this is my own fault. I’m a relatively lazy reader. I don't want a challenge. I don't like to read a book heavily symbolic or laden with descriptive text. I'm not going to read a lot of the classics for that reason. I don't care for stilted writing (which is what most of Cat's narrative was), which is why I have yet to get through Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I just like a good story to get lost in. This book wasn't a victim of “bad” writing, but much of it simply wasn't "fun" for me. I just didn’t enjoy reading half of the story. Much of the time it felt arduous, like a textbook. I had to trudge through Cat's chapter like it was quicksand. The first half of the book was a trial; the second half was a pleasure.

My final word: I'm so torn. I recognize what a clever story this was, and how inspired. It was full of emotion and compassion, heartache and tragedy. And ironically, despite the fact that I barely made it through Cat's narrative, he actually wound up being my favorite character: the boy who only wanted to be loved. So the author was very effective in her writing, and I grew to love him despite myself. A religious theme develops throughout the story, one of redemption and sacrifice and forgiveness. So it comes down to this: If I were rating this book based on my enjoyment of it, I'd probably give it a B-. I just didn't enjoy it enough. But for the author's clever weave of the story, for her effectiveness in getting me to care so much for Cat, and her development of the characters...for that I have to boost my rating to a solid B+. Muted and austere, it was a good effort full of heart.

There's a clever story there, but it can be a hard path to get to it. ( )
  nfmgirl2 | Mar 2, 2016 |
. This book put me to sleep a couple of times, but in a good way. I'd stay up late reading it and the lyrical way Smith writes, especially about nature, would lull me to sleep. I could hear the creek and taste the clean water, hear the woodland creatures and smell the dirt. And then she builds up the underlying tension where there is always this fear, this uneasiness, you can sense, everywhere. Smith's other strength is she captures the different voices of her characters so well as they tell their story. And they are so different but so much the same."What is a free man except a man with money" is the sociological premise here and all four main characters are really trying to discover what a free man really is, all while they are trying to take another man's freedom while seeking their very own. A worthwhile read!

Copy Provided by TLC Book Tours ( )
  hfineisen | Feb 29, 2016 |
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