Complex liberties 

Cates explores the price of “freedom”

The question of whether or not a reader will enjoy David Allan Cates’ latest novel will, in part, depend on how long that reader will tolerate the continued use of rhetorical questions as a narrative device. If the answer is “not for very long,” then that reader will miss out on a magnificently absorbing novel, one that subtly, yet definitively, resonates with the highly politicized tenor of our current times, while adding substance and perspective to our past.

In the opening pages of Freeman Walker, we learn from our 7-year-old protagonist, Jimmy Gates, that he is the product of a love affair between his slave mother and his plantation owner father (yes, it was a love affair). Equipping Jimmy with little else besides his “free papers” and a copy of the Declaration of Independence, Jimmy’s father sends his son to England for schooling. Though unable to read yet, the combined effect of these documents, along with his father’s parting words, will haunt Jimmy for years to come: “We all suffer,” his father tells him. “We are all going to die…We are not in control…We do not live for ourselves…But we are free.”

Those five tenets will incite the questions Jimmy will ask repeatedly over the next several decades. At every turn in his life, Jimmy questions his father’s tenets and, indeed, the very notion of freedom itself.

While at school in England, Jimmy’s father drowns in an accident that Jimmy foresees in a dream and some time later, he learns his mother has been sold to a different plantation. Jimmy asks: “[W]here was she? And if I had lost her, who loved me? And if no one did, who was I? And what about my idea of the future? If I didn’t know where she was, how could I set her free?” Reading his copy of the Declaration of Independence sends Jimmy into further despair and spirals him into further questioning: “Why did I have no right to happiness, only a right to pursue happiness—isn’t that a torment? To have the right, without the means? Civilized law, my father had said. But how could men aspiring to be divine invent such a torture?”

If a rhetorical question is a persuasive device meant to underscore a clear argument, then Jimmy’s questioning in the novel works in two ways. First, by illustrating this character’s profound battle for a sense of self and second, by compelling the reader, through these internal battles, to rethink the very notions of freedom a modern day reader invariably takes for granted. The rhetorical argument underscored by these questions is that, even today, when we fight for freedom and vote for change, we still haven’t necessarily dissected the very meaning of freedom or, for that matter, the cost of it.

At 18, Jimmy returns to the United States, hoping to find his mother and buy her back. With mixed race skin and eyes of two different colors (one green, the other brown), Jimmy can angle his hat to hide the one brown eye and, thereby, fool others into thinking he’s white. Eventually, though, the visage of whitehood is difficult to uphold. The country is on the brink of civil war and, when caught in a battle, Jimmy loses his hat, what money he has and his free papers. With little besides the British accent adopted from his school days, Jimmy is quickly captured, taken for a slave and expected to dig holes with other slaves for the burial of dead bodies.

Oh, what one green eye and a hat will give you.

While a “nigger digger,” as the group is called, Jimmy and a fellow slave are captured by a Confederate farmer and his wife, who shackle them in the basement with neither food nor water. After three days, Jimmy is freed by a Union captain who wants him to pay a price for freedom— though the couple who owned the farm have been shot dead, their two small children are still alive. “Bury them dead parents and them two live young’uns…” It is a stunning, if horrendous turn in the novel, one that morphs the “right” for freedom into the “cost” for freedom.

Eventually, Jimmy will make a long journey to the Montana Territory, residing in Last Best Chance City, the fictional embodiment of Helena during the late 1800s. Here, Cates employs Sandburg-esque prose to describe the city: “It was a breathing, cackling stink, Last Best Chance City—an open keg, a heap of slop, a decomposed pig. It was gumbo on your boot soles getting heavier with each step, the smell of shit and beans, of roast buffalo and horse piss...” In Last Best Chance, Jimmy will again (and again and again) face the inconsistencies and prejudices of the newly formed, and often violent, West.

In one sense, Freeman Walker is a novel about the past—one that is, in all senses, an odyssey of freedom. However, in another sense, the novel’s trajectory can’t help but illuminate a troubling legacy of hypocritical notions of freedom. Can we really say all our citizens are free when a biracial candidate for president is still considered by many to be an outsider? Can we really say we respect freedom when we force our brand of freedom onto other societies? Cates is never so didactic as to push these questions onto the reader, yet his haunting novel, which shows his range as both a writer and thinker, will compel us to ask these very questions and others like them, again and again.

David Allan Cates reads from and signs copies of Freeman Walker at Shakespeare & Co. Saturday, Oct. 18, at 7 PM.
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