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A new novel from writer Leonard Pitts Jr. jolts you back to the chaos of post-Civil War America. At a time when families of slaves were freed — but not necessarily together.
In hope of reuniting with their families, some freed slaves placed classified ads in newspapers:
"$200 Reward. During the year 1843, Donald Hughes carried away from Little Rock as his slaves, our daughter Betsy and our son Thomas, Jr., to the state of Mississippi, and subsequently, to Texas and when last heard from they were in Lagrange, Texas. We will give $100 each for them to any person who will assist them, or either of them, to get to Nashville, or to get to us any word of their whereabouts, if they are alive. Thomas and Georgia Smith"
"Information Wanted of Hessy Carter, who was sold from Vicksburg in the year 1852. She was carried to Atlanta and she was last heard of in the sales pen of Robert Clarke (a human trader in that place) from which she was sold. Any information of her whereabouts will be thankfully received and rewarded by her mother, Lucy Pickens, Nashville"
In Freeman, Pitts explores the turbulent and violent time after the official end of war and assassination of President Lincoln. He draws from historical classifieds to emphasize the steadfast efforts of freed slaves looking to reconnect with their loved ones. Pitts tells NPR's Audie Cornish that most people weren't aware of what was going on at the time.
"To me, it's such a fascinating and little known fact that all of these African-Americans newly freed slaves went to such lengths to reconstitute their marriages and reconstitute their families," he says.
"Nobody really talks about this, but you've got — 20 years after the war — people placing ads and walking across counties and states. And I just liked the idea of using real ads to emphasize that this was a real story. These were real people who were looking for their loved ones."
At the center of the novel is a love story. Sam Freeman, a liberated slave, embarks on a 1,000-mile journey to Mississippi in search of his wife Tilda. As Sam travels through the South, he encounters many different stories: slaves who are searching for their families, masters who won't give loved ones back and slaves who are killed on their way out of the South.
With these anecdotes, Pitts wanted to recognize the struggle of freed slaves by "giving the full dimension" of their story.
"We tend to have this image of the end of the Civil War as being the slaves said, 'OK, we're free now,' and hallelujah and jubilee and threw their hoes down and went on to begin building whatever freedom was going to be," Pitts says. "It was a lot more difficult, painful and complex than that."
Pitts details in Freeman how some slaves had a difficult time walking away from their masters.
"There were a lot of slaves who, either because of fear — which is what it was in Tilda's case — or because of devotion, [so] freedom had to be a decision for a lot of slaves," he says. "Freedom was not just this automatic thing that came because somebody came and read a notice that said you all are free now."
For other slaves, grasping the notion of freedom presents a bewildering challenge.
"In terms of the emotional aspect of it, if I've been owned all of my life and I'm 20, 30, 40 years old, I have to define for myself intellectually and emotionally what freedom means, and what I can now do," Pitts says.
Pitts says that in some regards, he identifies with Sam. Formerly owned by a woman with "rather progressive ideas," Sam is allowed to read, which helps him find security.
"He is a man who has sort of taken refuge in books and uses words as a shield," Pitts says. "And I do know that if I'm in an argument with somebody who's white, and I feel like they're treating me as less than, the level of the verbiage will raise, and I'll start using five- and seven-syllable words."
Although the novel is set against the tumultuous backdrop of post-Civil War America, Pitts says, he wrote a love story to reveal the indelible strength of African-Americans during a time of oppression.
"I am just absolutely enthralled by this idea that there was a time when we as African-Americans walked across mountains and meadows to be back together, with no guarantee that I'm even going to find you on the other side of that mountain, [and yet] I'm going to walk that mountain," he says.
"To me, that is a very, very powerful thing, and that's one of the driving forces that made me want to write this book."