STARRED REVIEW
September 2015

A challenging historical tale

By Tom Piazza
Tom Piazza’s new novel is a crisply told tale of race relations in Philadelphia a few years before the Civil War, one that brings into sharp relief the tensions that beset Northern society even as it was about to go to war to rid the nation of slavery.
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Tom Piazza’s new novel is a crisply told tale of race relations in Philadelphia a few years before the Civil War, one that brings into sharp relief the tensions that beset Northern society even as it was about to go to war to rid the nation of slavery.

When minstrel show performer and entrepreneur James Douglass encounters Henry Sims, playing his banjo for appreciative listeners on a Philadelphia street, he’s more concerned with the boost the talented young escaped slave will give his foundering show and the legal and practical obstacles to presenting him on stage than he is with the irony of inviting a black man to participate in a performance that holds those of his race up to ridicule. As Piazza portrays it, minstrel shows were among the era’s most popular entertainments, performed before audiences whose bigotry was every bit as entrenched as the most benighted Southerners.

It’s only when James comes face-to-face with the vicious slave hunter Tull Burton, relentlessly tracking Henry from his escaped home in Virginia, that he understands the high stakes in the game he has naively undertaken. The narrative of this fast-paced novel goes up a notch as James finds himself struggling to conceal Henry from discovery by his fellow performers while attempting to keep him out of Burton’s hands.

Piazza is never heavy-handed in dealing with the obvious moral ambiguities inherent in James’ decision to participate in minstrel shows, even as his protagonist eventually understands he and his colleagues were “complicit in a monstrous evil, in ways we could not see.” Not until James witnesses the depth of Burton’s malevolence is he impelled to action that will redeem him while giving Henry a chance at freedom. 

Readers familiar with Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, may discern faint echoes of that story in A Free State. But apart from a couple of graphic scenes of Burton’s brutality and glimpses of the casual cruelty of the slave owners, Piazza is more interested in telling a story that will have thoughtful readers slipping into James’ shoes and asking themselves: What would I have done?

 

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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A Free State

A Free State

By Tom Piazza
Harper
ISBN 9780062284129

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