Imagine a man walking from Philadelphia to Mississippi, hoping to unite with the woman he loves and hasn’t seen or spoken to in 15 years. That’s Sam, a runaway slave who fought in the Union Army, and is working in a library when he learns that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse. He adopts the surname, Freeman, and embarks on his journey on foot.
Then there’s Tilda. She and Sam met working on a plantation whose owner encouraged her slaves to learn to read. Sold after Sam’s escape, she’s afraid to leave her abusive new master, who doesn’t accept the news that the war ended.
At the same time, Prudence Kent, a Boston war widow, travels south to open a school for the freed slaves, honoring a promise made by her father decades ago. She’s accompanied by her friend, Bonnie, a black woman who has lived in the Kent household since youth.
Leonard Pitts Jr.’s Freeman captures the uncertainty, fear, and struggle for identity that plagued both blacks and whites at the close of the Civil War and upon the death of President Lincoln.
I’ve always liked Pitts’ columns for the Miami Herald and was curious about his crossover into fiction. His attention to geography and history, his portrayal of the characters’ journeys, alternating each chapter, and his message about the importance of literacy and education kept me turning pages of the 400-page novel.
There have been many stories about post-Civil War journeys; of people trying to reconnect with loved ones divided by the war. Freeman is another excellent addition to the genre; it emphasizes once again that there are no clear answers, that nothing is simply black and white.