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Book review: Backwoods massacre at heart of ‘Free Men’

Katy Simpson Smith’s second novel, “Free Men,” is historical fiction like her debut, “The Story of Land and Sea,” which took place during the American Revolution.

Smith, a historian who got her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, bases “Free Men” on an 18th-century account of the killings at Murder Creek.

The revolution is over. It’s spring, 1788, in the Southeast wilderness. A party of American loyalists has been murdered, and a Frenchman tracks down the killers: a Muskogee Indian, a slave and a white man. Smith includes plenty of adventure in this story, but she and her French tracker Luis Le Clerc Milfort are more interested in what brought this disparate trio together and what drove them to murder. Smith’s decision to have the characters tell their own backstories gives the book its sociological heft.

Though some faulted her previous novel for being confusing, “Free Men” is straightforward. We learn what makes the characters tick through alternating first-person narrations by Le Clerc, Bob, Cat and Istillicha.

Le Clerc considers himself a gentleman adventurer. He’s educated, an anthropologist or so he fancies. He’s kept notebooks about life in the American Colonies, and dreams of reporting about the psyche of its inhabitants to the Royal Society in Paris.

He says his treatise will hold a “fresh mirror up to the machinations of humanity” in a land where the poor steal from the poor. But he’s made a living as a “tracker and a deputy of justice.” When he hears that the party that had been traveling with his group has been murdered for their silver, he’s eager to hunt down the killers by himself.

One of the murderers, Bob, is a runaway slave. His life, he says, has been one of eating, working, taking beatings and sleeping. Bob wants freedom for himself, his wife, Winna, and their two children. But Winna won’t run away with him. She’s afraid they will all be hanged if they run and are caught. Bob believes the family will have a better life without him. He won’t know his heart from his hands until he’s free, and he’s been telling himself every day, “Today is the last day.” When he can finally take no more, he runs.

On the run and asleep in his camp, Bob is attacked by Cat, a white man, who holds a knife to Bob’s chest. Cat needs a horse. He’s run away after his wife and son died during childbirth. Bob figures Cat is hunting runaway slaves. So he lies and tells him he’s a free man.

After struggling to a standoff, they decide they are both “free and honorable men.” They camp together. Slight and shy, Cat resembles “a pile of sticks, or fine china all broken up and put back together.”

Quite the opposite is the bold warrior Indian Istillicha, translated as Man-slayer. He’s left his tribe after his uncle is killed by his own chief. Istillicha hopes to return in triumph to become a chief himself.

Cat and Bob come upon Istillicha’s cookfire. They travel together only a couple of days before they come upon four men carrying silver. The trio plans to sneak into camp and rob the men while they sleep. Of course, they wake. Knives are wielded; shots fired.

Four men are dead.

Smith’s mirror artfully portrays the men as neither bloodthirsty villains nor victims. They do try to rationalize their crimes: They needed the money more than their victims; they killed only in self-defense. Ultimately, though, each realizes his responsibility, and sensing that circumstances do not mitigate their guilt, each seeks redemption.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or at josephpeschel.com/HaveWords.

Fiction

Free Men

By Katy Simpson Smith

Harper, 368 pages

Meet the author

Katy Simpson Smith will be at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 7 p.m. Monday and at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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