Tom Piazza's “A Free State” is a passionate and timely novel
Humans have acted violently toward members of other tribes since time immemorial. “A Free State,” the passionate new novel by Tom Piazza about a fugitive slave, orchestrates themes of violence, entrapment, and loyalty to draw the 21st-century reader into pre-Civil War struggles of life and death—conflicts which resonate still in today’s world of racial profiling and invisible white privilege.
The novel interlaces literary artistry with a heart-pumping narrative pace. In 1855, the Fugitive Slave Law empowers a vicious bounty hunter to track runaway slave Henry Sims to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—a “free state” in one sense of the book’s title—and bring him back, dead or alive. As the offspring of his Virginia plantation’s master, Henry has light black skin, and he has fully developed an inborn genius for banjo playing and improvised theatre performance.
He passes for a free Negro in the North, but with trepidation. Through a chance encounter, Henry joins one of many Negro minstrel shows featuring white musicians and comedians in blackface makeup, performing ribald skits and “old plantation” music—and Henry “blacks up” too, in order to skirt the law against appearing on stage with white men.
All the rage in Philadelphia, these paradoxical shows derisively mock the black slave society of the time, at the same time artistically dignifying its extraordinary, creative music. Henry and his white mentor, troupe manager James Douglass, carry off ever-more astonishing showstoppers to generate crowds and revenue, all the while taking ever-greater risks of discovery and disaster.
Both young, desperate runaways, Henry and James are mirrored doubles: Henry flees the relatively comfortable life of a favored slave in bondage, only to find himself in constant peril in the “free state” of being that he seeks; James escapes from the prison of family poverty, another form of slavery widespread at every historical time, only to risk all that he’s accomplished if he sustains his loyalty to the fugitive Henry.
The two heroes are tormented by the decisions demanded of them, facing both practical and ethical dilemmas. (A waif-like young costumer for the troupe, Rose, lives a life in the shadows just off-stage from the central drama.) The main story’s moral arc transcends the violence of commission— the hideous brutality of the slave hunter who mutilates uncooperative fugitives and abuses innocent witnesses with impunity—to address even more profoundly the violence of complicity.
James and his “Virginia Harmonist” minstrels are complicit in the degradation of the Negro race, through their co-opting of its music and dance and humor in a ridiculing vein. They extend that complicity to the broader audience and society at large. When faced with the opportunity to help Henry escape violent capture, James weighs his status against Henry’s: “I had not tricked him. I owed him nothing. I had built this troupe and earned my freedom in this world of illusion, and I would not give it up.”
Piazza keeps the novel free from the voice and mindset of 2015. An expert on traditional American music, he informs the story with deep understanding of slave songs and traditional banjo music, as well as the protocols of blackface minstrel shows. He showcases the power of outward appearance, in this passage about the dressing-room transfiguration of the white men into blackface minstrels: “But the application of the burnt cork effected the true transformation, as if a lid were being lifted from a sarcophagus and some slumbering spirit were raised from the underworld.”
Another of many luminous passages in the novel describes the gift that Henry and James share, the ecstasy of the performing artist: “There was power that came, like magic, when you performed. Time expanded, changed shape, slowed down so that once he cast the spell he could move, unseen, while his listeners sat, bound by the illusion he spun, as if they were listening to someone else. You had to divide yourself. First there was one of you and many of them; then there was one of them, and many of you.”
Piazza is the author of 11 previous books: several novels, and several nonfiction works about jazz and blues music, and also about New Orleans, particularly relating to Hurricane Katrina.
“I do not think of this as a historical novel,” he says, “partly because the same issues of race privilege and obliviousness, of racial masquerade, of violence, of our complex identity as individuals and as members of various groups, are with us today, pressing just as heavily as they did then. The details may be different, but as far as I am concerned the underlying structures are very much the same.”
“A Free State,” by Tom Piazza
HarperCollins, 2015, 235 pages