David Allan Cates’ third novel tells the gritty but tender story of a freed mulatto slave. Sweeping through 19th century London, Civil War battles and the gold fields of the American West, Freeman Walker’s journey takes the reader straight to the heart of our cherished belief in American innocence and freedom.
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"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."
Richard Saturday, RALPH Magazine (Review of Arts Literature Philosophy and History)
I've been wrestling with this son-of-a-bitch for three weeks now, trying to get it down. Problem is ... it's as weird as they get, cannot be pinned wriggling to the wall. It's weird, gripping, probably one of the best books ever to make you want to vomit when you get to the usual 19th Century subjects: slavery, the Civil War, the Wild West, murdering Indians ... honor, truth, beauty, light.
Freeman Walker (mother black, father white --- one eye very dark, the other blue) is educated as a proper Englishman, falls on hard times, works in a child-labor pest-house fronting on the Thames, comes back to the United States, is nabbed (he's 1/2 black ... thus in 1860s America, he's black) to do yeoman service in the killing fields, burying soldiers, with Saturn and Crow-boy in trenches "seven feet wide and three feet deep:"
Saturn's mother had been a midwife, so he'd seen a lot of babies born, and he said even nigger babies were born white, and now he could see that dead white men turned black as ink, so everybody was born white and everybody died a nigger, and if it weren't for the in-between we'd all be one big loving family.
He was born James Gates but on his going about in America he changes his name as he is now free of shackles: "As Freeman Walker, I walked away. If freedom had given me no other options, it had given me this one."
He moves west, to gold country. Pure America, he claims, Last Best Chance City, "Swedes, Irish, Jews, Italians, Bohemians, English, German, African, Chinese, Mexican, and native --- all of us greedy, yearning, sweating, hiding, longing, hoping."
We were full and drunk, yet thirstier and hungrier than we'd ever been in our lives.
Gold is everywhere, ready to be picked, and Freeman picks his share, salts it away, is rich ... until, the appearance in his visage, "my mother, it seemed, was still too near me --- in the color of my left eye, in the slight breadth of my nose and lips, and in the texture of my hair as it grew."
"Late one evening toward the end of that winter, a group of hooded thieves showed up at my shack and relieved me of the burden of my illusions."
They also took my gold --- even almost all of my hidden treasure, which they located as though they'd been spying on me for months. When I dared to try to split the back of one of their heads with my shovel, I was promptly set on horseback with my wrists tied behind my back and a rope around my neck.
"Bein' a nigger with gold," one of the hoods replied.
Historical fiction? Bildungsroman? Picaresque? How about all three .... and then some. It's a dandy travel book taking us through mid-19th Century America and England. It's a funny coming-of-age for a half-slave, half-freedman. It's crammed with characters from London, America, the battlefields, the graves, the old west: A father who carries the Declaration of Independence around in his pocket, a Jewish thief who always leaves half of the loot behind (in case his victims might need it), the Irish Colonel Cornelius O'Keefe, who led one of the many uprisings against the English. He appears as "Acting Governor" of the "Western Territory," arriving with a band of ghostly Irish soldiers: "One night he stopped, however, and I could see the reflection of his face grow grim. 'I've seen enough fighting,' he said, 'to last until eternity. And have you noticed how I'm trailed everywhere by the dead.'"
I might have pretended not to hear, or I might have lied, but he'd charmed me into affection, and the peculiar intimacy of his voice coaxed the truth. "Yes," I said. Whispered. Breathed.
"Aaah," he said.
"I saw them when you came into town."
"Indeed," he said...
There are two or three truly heroic characters in Freeman Walker. Freeman himself. Jean-Jean Epstein, the diminutive (and honest) thief. And the good Colonel, who heads off into the wild country to stop the trade in Indian lives, where settlers are paid gold for every scalp they bring in. The Colonel, Walker and their backup Belly are jailed but the divine frees them: lightning strikes their makeshift jail. Their return home is a trip worthy of Ulysses, traipsing up and down mountains, through streams, across deserts: one of the worst trips you or I (or Walker) has made or will ever make.
The Colonel, mad as a coot, is, alas, lost to us at the end. He represents "the light of the law" that should have protected Indians from losing their lands, their dignity and their scalps. In his dying fall, he reminds one, strangely, of the Great Gatsby. Who was, as you may recall, "worth more than all the rest."
--- Richard Saturday
Michael Moore, Missoulian October 2008
Old places, new eyes - Novel explores freedom as seen by freed slave
For more than a year, David Cates thought the main character of his new novel was the man he’d based on Montana’s first territorial governor, Thomas Meagher.
Meagher, re-envisioned as Cornelius O’Keefe for Cates’ “Freeman Walker,” was an idealistic man with “huge, heroic aspirations,” a man come West mostly as a result of failures elsewhere. Cates, whose previous novels are the well-received “Hunger in America” and “X Out of Wonderland,” had opted to tell O’Keefe’s story through a sort of buddy-narrator, a former slave named Freeman Walker.
Over time, however, as Cates lived with the voice of Freeman Walker, he found himself with a new protagonist.
“I realized that his story was the one I wanted to tell, that he was the more resonant character,” said Cates, who works as executive director of the relief organization Missoula Medical Aid when he’s not writing. “They’re both very American characters, but Freeman lets you trace the arc of American history.”
That resolved one of Cates’ two major problems. The other - what the book was actually about - came in another conversation.
“I had a story that I was telling, and it felt right, but I couldn’t have honed it down and said, 'Look, this is what it’s about,’ ” he said.
Then he had a conversation with the University of Montana’s Jim Scott, an expert in the Roman classics.
“I asked him which book he always found himself going back to and he said Virgil’s 'The Aeneid,’ ” Cates recalled. “And then he asked me the same question and I said, 'Huck Finn.’ Those books are essentially creation myths for their cultures. And that’s when I realized I was really writing 'Huck Finn.’ What I wanted to talk about was how our national identity was forged.”
It’s an identity born in blood, fired by ambition, spurred by wealth.
“The 19th century is really the psychic birthplace of our country,” Cates said. “It revealed the fullness of our ambitions and the fullness of our failures.”
In “Freeman Walker,” the century’s story plays out through the eyes of a boy first introduced as Jimmy Gates, the mulatto son of a kind slave owner and the slave he truly loved.
At age 7, Jimmy is sent to London by his white father, grows into manhood in the “brutishness of urban England,” then returns home to America to seek his fortune and his mother.
He’s deposited into the middle of the Civil War, where he meets O’Keefe, is captured as a slave and finally regains his freedom. Adopting the name Freeman Walker, he strikes out for the gold camps out West, looking, like everyone else, to make his mark.
“What I wanted to do was take these landscapes we all know - London, the South, the Civil War, the gold camps - and look at them again through the eyes of a new character,” Cates said.
What Freeman Walker sees is the untidy, complicated soul of an America that wants to believe in its innocence despite evidence to the contrary.
“We have this notion of our innocence, but we are a nation that lives on the soil of our own genocide,” Cates said. “The Civil War, the killing of the Native Americans, those are convenient things to look past, but you can’t do it with a clear conscience.”
Although it moves like a historical thriller, “Freeman Walker” is really a meditation on freedom.
“In this country, we use freedom like an almost religious word, but too often it’s not clear what we mean,” Cates said. “Too often, it means the freedom to consume and the freedom to be free to consume. And too often we act as if we are free of the responsibilities that come with our past.”
The 19th century, Cates said, is really a metaphor for that part of the American spirit that sees the rest of the world as a frontier to conquer and use.
“The American West has always been about the limitless trove of resources and wealth,” he said. “It’s always about being able to take more, and when we can’t take more there, we look elsewhere. That’s a good thing to understand about yourself, and it seems to me we haven’t been particularly good at learning it.”
Although Cates knew American history, the literary journey required to write the book left him astonished by the violence that had taken place on American soil.
“I wasn’t sure I had enough blood in me to write this book,” he said. “In the midst of this very violent past, I wanted to say something about what it means to be human, what it means to suffer with dignity. It was hard going.”
“Freeman Walker” will be Cates’ third novel, but he’s written five others that haven’t been published. And while his other books have been critical hits, they haven’t exactly been commercial hits.
Still, Cates finds himself drawn back to the computer.
“When I think about success, sure, you’d love to make some money,” he said. “But the only real success with this sort of thing is knowing that you gave it your all. This is all I have, and this is what I want to do. If I’ve done it, that’s enough, even if nobody wants it.”
In a way, Cates’ books are a way to search for what is most true about himself.
He is death-obsessed - “Hunger in America.” He is an optimistic, good-natured man who hasn’t enjoyed any major financial success - “X out of Wonderland.” And he is the son of a man who couldn’t resist holding forth on the meaning of freedom.
Thus, “Freeman Walker.”
“As I was working on these books, this isn’t something I realize or am really conscious of - but later, well, it’s pretty easy to see,” he said. “Hey, it’s me. All three books are about America, I guess, and all three are, to some extent, about me.”
What Freeman Walker sees is the untidy, complicated soul of an America that wants to believe in its innocence despite evidence to the contrary.
Montana Public Radio: David Allan Cates discusses America's founding creation myth, our belief that we are an exceptional people living in freedom and innocence. Montana Public Radio audio cast - October 2008
Missoula Independent by Azita Osanloo - October 2008
Complex liberties: Cates explores the price of “freedom”
The question of whether or not a reader will enjoy David Allan Cates’ latest novel will, in part, depend on how long that reader will tolerate the continued use of rhetorical questions as a narrative device. If the answer is “not for very long,” then that reader will miss out on a magnificently absorbing novel, one that subtly, yet definitively, resonates with the highly politicized tenor of our current times, while adding substance and perspective to our past.
In the opening pages of Freeman Walker, we learn from our 7-year-old protagonist, Jimmy Gates, that he is the product of a love affair between his slave mother and his plantation owner father (yes, it was a love affair). Equipping Jimmy with little else besides his “free papers” and a copy of the Declaration of Independence, Jimmy’s father sends his son to England for schooling. Though unable to read yet, the combined effect of these documents, along with his father’s parting words, will haunt Jimmy for years to come: “We all suffer,” his father tells him. “We are all going to die…We are not in control…We do not live for ourselves…But we are free.”
Those five tenets will incite the questions Jimmy will ask repeatedly over the next several decades. At every turn in his life, Jimmy questions his father’s tenets and, indeed, the very notion of freedom itself.
While at school in England, Jimmy’s father drowns in an accident that Jimmy foresees in a dream and some time later, he learns his mother has been sold to a different plantation. Jimmy asks: “[W]here was she? And if I had lost her, who loved me? And if no one did, who was I? And what about my idea of the future? If I didn’t know where she was, how could I set her free?” Reading his copy of the Declaration of Independence sends Jimmy into further despair and spirals him into further questioning: “Why did I have no right to happiness, only a right to pursue happiness—isn’t that a torment? To have the right, without the means? Civilized law, my father had said. But how could men aspiring to be divine invent such a torture?”
If a rhetorical question is a persuasive device meant to underscore a clear argument, then Jimmy’s questioning in the novel works in two ways. First, by illustrating this character’s profound battle for a sense of self and second, by compelling the reader, through these internal battles, to rethink the very notions of freedom a modern day reader invariably take
s for granted. The rhetorical argument underscored by these questions is that, even today, when we fight for freedom and vote for change, we still haven’t necessarily dissected the very meaning of freedom or, for that matter, the cost of it.
At 18, Jimmy returns to the United States, hoping to find his mother and buy her back. With mixed race skin and eyes of two different colors (one green, the other brown), Jimmy can angle his hat to hide the one brown eye and, thereby, fool others into thinking he’s white. Eventually, though, the visage of whitehood is difficult to uphold. The country is on the brink of civil war and, when caught in a battle, Jimmy loses his hat, what money he has and his free papers. With little besides the British accent adopted from his school days, Jimmy is quickly captured, taken for a slave and expected to dig holes with other slaves for the burial of dead bodies.
Oh, what one green eye and a hat will give you.
While a “nigger digger,” as the group is called, Jimmy and a fellow slave are captured by a Confederate farmer and his wife, who shackle them in the basement with neither food nor water. After three days, Jimmy is freed by a Union captain who wants him to pay a price for freedom— though the couple who owned the farm have been shot dead, their two small children are still alive. “Bury them dead parents and them two live young’uns…” It is a stunning, if horrendous turn in the novel, one that morphs the “right” for freedom into the “cost” for freedom.
Eventually, Jimmy will make a long journey to the Montana Territory, residing in Last Best Chance City, the fictional embodiment of Helena during the late 1800s. Here, Cates employs Sandburg-esque prose to describe the city: “It was a breathing, cackling stink, Last Best Chance City—an open keg, a heap of slop, a decomposed pig. It was gumbo on your boot soles getting heavier with each step, the smell of shit and beans, of roast buffalo and horse piss...” In Last Best Chance, Jimmy will again (and again and again) face the inconsistencies and prejudices of the newly formed, and often violent, West.
In one sense, Freeman Walker is a novel about the past—one that is, in all senses, an odyssey of freedom. However, in another sense, the novel’s trajectory can’t help but illuminate a troubling legacy of hypocritical notions of freedom. Can we really say all our citizens are free when a biracial candidate for president is still considered by many to be an outsider? Can we really say we respect freedom when we force our brand of freedom onto other societies? Cates is never so didactic as to push these questions onto the reader, yet his haunting novel, which shows his range as both a writer and thinker, will compel us to ask these very questions and others like them, again and again.
Clark's Eye on Books - September 2008
By Clark Isaacs
Jimmy Gates begins his journey through the mystery of life with one great disadvantage; he is a mulatto! Set in the 1860’s during a period of time when it was not unusual for slave owners to have relations with their slaves; this book portrays this relationship with a keen insight into how it might have been back then. Freeman Walker is the third novel by David Allan Cates whose previous works were X out of Wonderland and Hunger in America which were recognized as a New York Times Notable Book and a Montana Book Award Honor Book.
Freeman Walker is a fast paced novel which moves from America to England where he is enrolled in an English gentlemen’s school to obtain a proper education. Born of a white father and a black mother his appearance can be distinctly either black or white depending upon how he combs his hair. After the death of his father, he has to fend for himself. He earns funds to return to the Civil War to find and free his mother whom he had left behind. Changing his name from Jimmy Gates to Freeman Walker he does exactly what the name implies, he walks through history to find peace in his life as a free man!
After the civil war, Walker travels west to seek a new life. He meets up with several colorful characters and becomes the center of attention because of his command of English and ability to write. The territorial governor sees in him a person who is endowed with a keen intellect and an ability to be far more than a fallen down drunk which he had become. Rising up from the gutter, literally, he is placed in a position where he can be a leading respected citizen. I recommend this book, as it will take the reader on a challenging journey page after page and does not disappoint when it ends.
Harriet Klausner - October 2008
Jimmy Gates is the son of a slave and her master. He receives his "freedom papers" and a copy of the Declaration of Independence from his father who sends him to England to be educated at a boarding school. He adapts to his all white surroundings with ease and is doing well at school.
However, everything changes when his father, coming to England to see his pre-teen offspring, drowns during the Atlantic crossing. Jimmy quits school and obtains work in England making horse saddles; which he does for six years. As the Civil War explodes Jimmy, calling himself Freeman Walker, returns to the States. However, the eighteen years old Freeman opts not to join the army, but instead heads west seeking gold.
Jimmy-Freeman is more a symbol of a relatively forgotten group, the free black, during the years just prior to and during the Civil War. Thus he never fully gets past the role of representative as major events seem impervious to his story. Still this is a fascinating look at somewhat ignored piece of American history as the reader obtains a deep look at what a free black had to do to survive in a world that always assumed he had to be a runaway slave.
Library Journal - September 2008
Cates’s third novel (after Hunger in America and X Out of Wonderland) is a gritty, sweeping work of historical fiction, written in the first person, about the adventures of Freeman Walker (aka Jimmy Gates), a cherished mulatto child born to a black slave woman and a married white farmer in 1840s Maryland.
When Freeman turns seven, his wise and caring father makes his only son a “free man” with papers and sends him to a British boarding school. When his education in England ends several years later, Freeman finds himself in a Dickensian situation. At age 18, he returns to America, hoping to fight as a heroic Civil War soldier and also to find his mother. However, he soon flees the horror of battle and heads west.
How he copes with his roller-coaster destiny is a testament to his strength of spirit and to his father’s guiding conviction that “we do not live for ourselves.” Contending with his mixed heritage and later with becoming crippled, Freeman exhibits a sharpened outlook concerning human nature.
The novel’s other characters are sometimes likable and sometimes not, but all are originals. Recommended for larger fiction collections.—Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ
Jimmy Gates spends the first seven years of his life in a bubble of paradise within a region of hell. Though born to a slave owner and his slave, he is loved by both parents who also share a mutual affection for each other. As he grows and plays in the lush green pastures of Sweet Grass Farm, the tiny boy is barely aware of his status as human chattel. At seven his father gives him papers that signify his freedom, and that is when his troubles begin.