"When I was a boy I had little interest in freedom, but my father did, so when I was seven years old he freed me, and I was sent across the sea with a change of clothing in a little black maw and a rolled-up copy of the Declaration of Independence that I could not read".
Jimmy Gates is sent to England for an education and to escape the racial constraints of the States. However when his father dies, he is sent to the workhouse. He passes some years in the company of thieves and prostitutes. He listens to the speeches of an Irish revolutionary named O'Keefe and dreams of returning to the States as a warrior himself, to find and rescue his mother.
The young Jimmy Gates is an innocent, completely unaware of slavery and what the colour of his skin means to some. He is a gentle, thoughtful boy. As he grows into a young man, his personality changes and he displays a violent, calculating, angry demeanour. At this point I didn't like him very much.
Upon his arrival back in the States, he is surprised to find himself held in such low regard, even though he is a free man. Violence, anger and intolerance is visited upon him. He ends up 'enlisted' in the Civil War, still hoping to find his mother.
He crosses paths with the Irishman O'Keefe again. Their futures seem to be inextricably intertwined. Jimmy Gates renames himself Freeman Walker.
I had expected this novel to be more historical in tone. Although it certainly uses historical events and attitudes, they are simply the vehicle. It is the characters and their dreams, ideas and passions that drive the novel. Freeman Walker is a memorable protagonist, discovering the harsh price paid for freedom.
However, I found my interest waning in the latter part of the novel. An element of magic, faeires and ghost armies is introduced which I felt detracted from what I had already read. I was looking for more about the search for his mother. This is reduced to almost a footnote at the end of a chapter.
The ending is satisfying though.
"Yet out here there was nobody left to see me, nobody left to name me but me."