Wednesday, November 5, 2008
James Gates is a young boy, son of a slave woman and a plantation owner. When he is 7 years old, his father gives him the gift of freedom. After a few short lessons in the ways of life hinging on the fact that life is not fair, his father bundles him off to England for a good education and a chance to live a free life. James spends a handful of years at his privileged boarding school, until unexpected events force him into a more gritty life among the masses. Coming of age in England as a ward of a workhouse, James devises a way to escape England and moves back to the United States, where he desires to find and free his mother. Although he goes into this endeavor with good intentions, he is soon caught up in the excitement of the Civil War and longs to be a soldier putting his freedom and life on the line for the glory and adventure of combat. However, things don't go as planned, and James (who goes through several name changes in the book from James Gates to Jimmy Gates, to Freeman Walker, a name symbolic of his journey) becomes by turns a slave soldier, a miner and prospector, a homeless derelict, and eventually the secretary of a mentally questionable Governor. Through all of his adventures, James questions the meanings and implications of freedom in all it's forms.
Well. I don't really know where to begin with this book. Aside from the fact that it had virtually no plot to speak of, it was also odd in that it wasn't really a character driven novel either. The protagonist was a curiously flat character. This is not to say that he didn't have desires or ideals, or manifest thought processes; it was more that these didn't ring true and felt somewhat hollow. He seemed to change personalities based on the situation he was in and as a result I never felt as though I knew this man, or that I could trust his actions or reactions. Even though he was the star character, it was very hard to get a clear impression of him or what he stood for. His character instead seemed only a to be backdrop on which to hang moral expositions and "messages," although it is not really clear what those messages are meant to be. The gist I got was something about the old adage of freedom not being free, or maybe something about the elusiveness of freedom. It may have even been how the interpretation of freedom is fluid. The problem was that the book had too many of these types of messages, and none of them was very clear. Add to this the author's annoying habit of interpreting his own symbolism, the weird amalgam of strange plot elements, the unsuccessful use of magical realism, and the author's habit of fleshing out the story with minor vulgarity, and you may be able to see why this was not a happy reading experience. The book seemed to take the form of loosely related incidents stretching over a period of time, all involving the same character, which is not the same thing as a story with a definable plot and characters that you can relate to. The conclusion of the novel was also disappointing. It wasn't very believable or convincing and kind of came out of left field. By the time it came around to that point, I wasn't expecting very much, and in that area at least I wasn't disappointed.
Although I was initially excited about reading this story told in a viewpoint that I am not familiar with, I was very disappointed in this book. I think that perhaps if the book attempted to tell a straight forward story instead of making it a plethora of messages and symbolism, I would have enjoyed it much more and perhaps been better able to recommend it to others. As it was, the story started off interestingly, but quickly took a steep nose dive, never to recover. The idea behind this book was a good one, but I think the author failed in the direction and the execution.