DAVID ALLAN CATES
Freeman Walker is a story told by a mulatto slave, Jimmy Gates, freed by his owner-father when he is 7-years-old, separated from his mother and everything he holds dear. After receiving an unforgettable talk by his father about the rules of life he will no doubt discover on his journeys, and a copy of the Declaration of Independence, he is sent to England to get an education. Jimmy, in the first of the novel’s great ironies, has had a blissful, loving childhood and never understood he wasn’t free until his new “freedom” enslaves him miserably.
Despite his loneliness for home, he learns fast and well and makes himself a good and popular student. Four years pass, and while he is waiting for his father to visit for the first time, he learns that his father’s ship has sunk and his father has drowned at sea. Bereft of financial support, mourning still his long lost mother and now his father’s death, Jimmy is sent to a London workhouse where he spends six years making saddles, reading heroic novels to his companions, being sexually abused by the proprietor, finding the comfort of prostitutes, and discovering the inspirational speeches of an Irish revolutionary named Cornelius O’Keefe, or O’Keefe of the Sword.
When he is 18, dreaming himself a warrior and a hero, he returns to the States to rescue his mother. While looking for his mother in northern Virginia—he discovers that if he wears a hat he can pass for white—he gets caught in a major battle. Jimmy is overjoyed to be able to take part, but is soon overwhelmed by its horror. Untrained, and unattached to any unit, he nevertheless has a chance meeting with O’Keefe of the Sword, who is now a Union General leading a brigade of Irishmen. Jimmy saves O’Keefe on the battlefield, but later is captured himself by Confederate forces, and again made a slave, spending the next two years attached to a confederate regiment digging graves. When his unit is overrun and he is found shackled in a root cellar with his friend, a Yankee officer presents to him a terrible choice, stay locked up, or commit an atrocity and go free. He chooses to walk free.
He changes his name to Freeman Walker and as he reinvents himself once again and makes his way into the mythic territory of the Great American West, the novel begins to change. He hopes to live peacefully by getting rich, and he does live peacefully and get rich, for a while. But his race catches up again, and he is lynched, and he loses his treasure, and he surrenders to the mud on the side of the road, and looks forward to the coming winter and his own demise.
But into the territory that winter rides the new territorial governor, none other than his childhood hero, Cornelius O’Keefe, who the war has turned into a pacifist. Freeman’s life changes once more as he becomes O’Keefe’s secretary, and the two of them, joined by a half-breed captain named Felix Belly—three outcasts—form the only government in the Territory, a wild and savage place run by vigilantes. Their quixotic attempt to stop the vigilantes from a campaign of terror against the Natives spurs a terrible but noble adventure and brings Freeman a kind of rebirth in which he finally comes to understand the meaning of moral freedom.
$25.95 | Fiction Hardcover | 6x9 | 304 pages
October 14, 2008
But that moment, in the carriage, I saw his face as I had never seen it before, and his sadness scared me. Maybe because of that fear, and maybe because after too much silence I was suffocating for the sound of his voice, and maybe because when he finally did speak he deliberately touched each of his fingers and thumb before each sentence, and maybe because he used the pronoun We, which served to intensify our intimacy as the horses broke into a gallop and the carriage began to sway—maybe for all of those reasons I have never forgotten what he said to me.
“We,” he said, and he touched his little finger, “all suffer.”
Then he touched his ring finger, bent it back almost ninety degrees before straightening it again, “And we are all going to die. It’s a law of nature. You know these things already.”
He swallowed. I swallowed. I watched him touch his middle finger and pause as though he found this one the most difficult to contemplate. He blinked rapidly, nodded beyond me to the passing world out the window, the world we were leaving behind—my mother?
“We are not in control,” he said.
I could not take my eyes off of him. I tried to swallow again but my throat felt dry and swollen. I was dying to unbutton my collar but dared not.
“It will take becoming a man,” he said, “to learn these last two. First—” He touched his pointer. “We do not live for ourselves.” Then he made a fist and shook it slightly as if he were holding something precious that he could feel and did not want to let go.
He lifted his thumb and whispered, “But we are free!”