Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith

In 1788, in what is known today as Alabama, a French anthropologist is following a group of three men,  a Creek Native, a fugitive slave and a white man.  The small group or one of them may have killed someone,  many people, or none – that will be revealed.  The Frenchman may kill the three – or not – (but there seems to be that foreshadowing).   But for all that the author seems to have let various literary qualities take over and the the tension fails.

free men

Free Men
by Katy Simpson Smith
2016/ 373 pages
rating : 7  / historical fiction

The narrative unfolds in a structure presenting the overall story in 1788 from one or another character and then an in-depth 1st person tale  as each of the four main characters tells his own background. Then the main story continues with one or the other narrators.  At one point a wife and maybe one other person tell a portion.

There is lots and lots and lots of backstory to wade through.  I’m sure it’s to get to the heart of the theme of all men, no matter the skin tone or heritage,  are quite a lot alike but …

The first character presented in depth is Bob, a runaway-slave with a wife and children back home in Florida who dreams of a piece of land out west.  Out on the trail he first meets Cat, a rather pathetic white man who seems lost in some non-physical ways.  After a few days travel those two come across a Muskogee Native named Istillicha who is on the trail to get his own money returned and create a tribe of his own,  maybe his old one back.  Finally, the background tale of Le Clerc, the tracker- anthropologist and French ex-patriot, is told.

This could have been a powerful book with page-turning tension in a quest theme OR  literary exploration of a fascinating theme-driven work complete with theologically based symbolism without redemption.  Unfortunately  it wasn’t quite able to be both very well and I think that’s what Smith tried for.

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