Recommended Reading: Free Men, by Katy Simpson Smith

IMG_6219“Three men, none alike, asking to see each other, to be seen. Each pursuing a wild fancy that only this country, with all its contradictions, can permit”: these are the characters in Katy Simpson Smith’s Free Men*, her second novel after the acclaimed The Story of Land and Sea (my review here).

In Free Men, which is based on a 1788 historical incident, Ms. Smith returns to the American South in the eighteenth century, weaving a tale of three men—Bob, Cat, and Istillicha—who form an unlikely bond in the muggy woods of what is now Alabama. Bob has escaped from enslavement at a sugar plantation, though he’s left behind his wife and two daughters; Cat is a troubled white man from the Carolinas, an orphan whose behavior is as unpredicatable as his origins are inscrutable; Istillicha is a Muskogee (Creek) man who’s been forced out of his town’s leadership, and who now seeks revenge.

All three are pursued by Le Clerc, a Frenchman employed by the Muskogee as a tracker. Le Clerc, who is a sort of proto-anthropologist, is sent to punish them after report reaches his chief that the trio has murdered a trading party under the chief’s protection.

The unusual grouping fascinates Le Clerc, and he delays capturing them in order to better understand them, and the new country in which he finds himself, through observation:

There is a desperation about these men that suggests they do not reside on the rung of the criminal but, like all men here, are pursuing what might be called advancement, or hope. Their success or failure will, I can’t help but believe, be a reflection on the project of this country. And yet I am the only man on their trail, the only man who may behold their fates. This strikes me as peculiarly lonely.

Free Men brought to mind Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, in that both novels hone in on a small set of diverse characters to explore major historical shifts. By telling the stories of Bob, Cat, Istillicha, Le Clerc, and Winna (Bob’s wife) in turn, Ms. Smith paints a compelling portrait of the varied experiences of people living in this small corner of North America. Each of the three pursued men narrates his personal history in the past tense, which shifts to the present when they describe their roles in the murders and their attempt to disappear westward.

This shift in tense highlights how what we may perceive as the concerns of a history long passed are still with us today: the fluidity and stubborn intractability of race (“Down here,” says Bob, “color all depends on who you know, what people you can call your kin.”), how people come together or split away to make a country, the meaning of freedom itself. And Le Clerc’s framing narration reminds us that histories we read in school are written by those who claim victory, the privileged few, even when they cannot encompass the whole of the tale.

The pacing of Free Men is slow, allowing readers to experience the detailed richness of Ms. Smith’s prose; I think the pacing also gives one the sense of accompanying Istillicha, Bob, and Cat on their long walk into the wilderness, overhearing their conversations. As Bob says early in the novel, “talking is how to cross over all the big holes in the world.” Free Men takes part in that long conversation, thoughtfully and with assured grace.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea

photo (116)Katy Simpson Smith’s luminous debut novel is The Story of Land and Sea*, a careful, spare tale of family in late-eighteenth-century America.

What interested me first in the novel was Paul Yoon’s advance praise; I loved his novel Snow Hunters, which was published last year. (Mr. Yoon teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars, which Ms. Smith attended.) Like Snow Hunters, The Story of Land and Sea often reads like poetry; Ms. Smith’s prose is extraordinarily graceful.

Graceful and powerful, too — at a mere 240 pages, The Story of Land and Sea contains so much material that a lesser novelist might have molded it into a sprawling 500-page book, or even a trilogy. Yet Ms. Smith’s compact style is highly evocative and time and place, and studded with descriptive jewels.  For instance, one character picking roses “prefers the blossoms with petals tightly packed, like women’s skirts” (176-77); another “comes downstairs in bare feet, her head feeling crowded with sharp rocks” (18).

Told in three parts spanning twenty-odd years, the novel orbits around three parent-child pairings in a coastal North Carolina town: John and his daughter Tabitha, Asa and his daughter Helen (later John’s wife and Tabitha’s mother), and Moll and her son Davy.

John is a former pirate. Asa is a respected landowner. Moll is a slave — Helen’s slave.

These three parents love their children with ferocity, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles and losses. All the characters are rendered with compassion and imbued with full emotional ranges. The role faith (and despair) plays in the novel is incredibly nuanced, especially as it intersects with the most terrible of American institutions: slavery.

The Story of Land and Sea is a story of parents and children, but it is also a story of how America came to be, how a nation conceived in the hope of freedom came into the world blighted with the cancer of enslavement. It reveals the terrible price of the loss of empathy, or its fundamental lack.

Moll, who needs freedom most, is the least free of all the characters, so constrained that she cannot bring herself to love the children she bears after Davy:

Two years passed before her second child, and by then she understood that these babies belonged to someone else. Love was weakness. Love was acknowledging the rightness of the world, and this she could not do. The children were beautiful and they deserved affection and she would do her almighty best, but her firstborn son was the last thing she allowed herself to cherish. (167)

The Story of Land and Sea is an unflinching look at the worst and the best of human nature, a beautiful meditation on American origins, and a compelling family saga. Highly recommended reading.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.