I never thought that I would enjoy a book regarding blackface in America, yet I did. Author Tom Piazza has done it again with his latest novel, A Free State. Just when I thought that City of Refuge and Why New Orleans Matters clearly showed Piazza's talents as an author, A Free State proves it even more in a grander way.
The story is thus: James Douglass, a white man living in Philadelphia in 1855, makes his living by performing as part of a minstrel troupe known as the Virginia Harmonists. He with three other white men blacken their faces and "pretend" to be happy go lucky Negroes who sing songs and perform about the "good ol' days" of living in the South. One day, he has the chance to listen to a young light skinned black man named Henry perform with only his voice and a banjo and soon, James is swept away with the music. While he and his fellow musicians perform under a guise of being black, Henry performs as a true black man with a soul that is both beautiful and broken. James invites him to be a part of the group, an unheard of thing as black people were not allowed to perform on stage. Yet, Henry has a plan that will help James as well as cover his murky past, as he is pursued by a ruthless and sadistic slave hunter named Tull.
Although I flew through this book, I still felt anger at such a point of history in this country. There was nothing "happy" about being a slave in the South, yet the minstrels showed quite the opposite: big smiles, loud mismatched clothes, and music to soothe or ignite under a guise of blackened faces. Piazza, in his dazzling style of writing, gives us a raw look at this form of "entertainment" without holding back. He makes us aware of what was accepted in those days and how, even now, skin colour still plays a heavy role in today's society.
The scene in which Tull "speaks" with Henry's mother was terrifying to me. I knew that something dreadful would happen to her, yet I couldn't look away from the words. When Henry left the plantation, he made a promise to return for his family and get them safely away. Tull, as hired by the plantation master and Henry's father, Stephens, stops at nothing to locate the "property", even going so far as to mutilate or cause great harm to those who cross his path. Although Henry seems to stay several steps ahead of Tull, Tull is like a dog with its favourite chew toy. I did have some sympathy for James: although he blackens his face for a living, he appeared to be more than that. He sees Henry almost as a friend and understands, too late I think, the true ramifications of his actions.
Piazza wanted to know my thoughts on this book - beautiful in a chilling and disturbing way.
I honestly hope Henry made it to Canada.