FREE MEN by Katy Simpson Smith


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In the late-18th-century woodlands of Florida and Alabama, three fugitives relate the harsh circumstances that led to their crime.

Smith (The Story of Land and Sea, 2014) deftly evokes the swamp heat, fetid woods, and pitiless inhabitants of a barely settled region of the nascent United States. European immigrants run sugar plantations with the sweat of slave labor while running rum in a precarious partnership with the native Creek Indians, and representatives from all three groups combine to tell this story. The primary narrator is Bob, a slave and a mighty talker: he talks his way out of punishment when he gets into trouble and talks himself to sleep with stories of a life of freedom. When he fails to talk his wife into fleeing with him, he escapes anyway. On the road, he encounters the near-mute Cat, who, although a white man, lacks the will to exert power over himself, let alone Bob. The two meet a young Creek named Istillicha, who's aiming for the vengeance which will liberate him from a tribal slight. When the three encounter a traveling party on the road, the result is bloody and tragic. Soon bounty hunter Le Clerc, an expatriate Frenchman who lives among the Creeks, is sent to capture them. Each of these characters (plus Bob's abandoned wife) narrates his own story; they each have a past full of hardship, loss, and betrayal. “The best of life was not what we were living," Bob tells himself, "but something already past, or up ahead.” Despite crisp, vivid prose, the exciting premise becomes bogged down by the multiple narrators, whose voices blend until they are too similar to distinguish, while their complicated back stories become too crowded. For a tale about one man chasing three criminals through the wilderness, the pace is frustratingly languid.

Though beautifully researched and written, this run for freedom is slowed by too many campfire stories.

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-06-240759-7
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2015


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