Thursday, October 15, 2015

Freedom's Island by Sabra Waldfogel - #review

When Ambrose Byrd, retired Buffalo soldier, arrives in the all-black town of Willow Bend, Mississippi, he’s looking for peace, but he walks into trouble.

The town’s mayor, Jim Truehart, bought the land from his former master Hiram Little and transformed the Delta swamp into the best cotton land in the county. Now Little wants the land back, and he hires a man for the job that everyone in Willow Bend knows too well—former Klansman Benjamin Loveless, who carried out a massacre in the neighboring county ten years before.

Byrd thought he was done with being a soldier. But his friendship with Truehart—and his love for Truehart’s eighteen-year-old daughter Bernie—pull him into Willow Bend’s fight. As danger comes ever closer, Byrd decides to join with Willow Bend for battle.

Will it be a fight for freedom…or a massacre?


First off, I loved Freedom's Island.  Having said that, this was not an easy read. The indignities committed by one person or group on another person or group simply because she/he/they are different somehow should anger all of us with a soul or an ounce of goodness in our veins.  And for such petty reasons:  a nationality, a religion, a physical disease or mental illness, a gender, a race.

Ambrose Byrd has been a soldier, first for the Union forces, and then for the US Army for about 20 years.  At first, even in the North, black men were not allowed in combat as soldiers, I suppose until things got bad enough that some generals sat around and said, "Hey, we have all these able-bodied men working with us...." and the rest was history.

Before that, he was a slave.  The first time he ran away he got 10 lashes.  The second time, he got 25 lashes and an "R" branded into his cheek for 'runaway'.

He's seen too much and done a few things of which he is not proud.  Adjusting to civilian life after a career in the army can be rough on anyone.  Ambrose travels with a comrade to that man's home in Mississippi and is surprised to find an all-black town, with a black mayor, no less.

But old prejudices die hard.  The white former slave owner who sold the mayor (Jim Trueheart) swamp land wants it back now that he's learned Jim has turned it into profitable cotton fields.  He feels it is his due.  When black farmers bring in their cotton for him to gin, he cheats them on the price and weight of the product, because hey, they're 'only' black folks.

But there are more than racially motivated prejudices in Freedom's Island.  When it becomes apparent that the town will have to fight to maintain, not only their land, but their lives, one of the better shots is forbidden to fight ... because she is a woman, and 18 at that.  As a woman, that is hard for me to understand.  If someone told me I could not do something because I am a woman, well, I'd have some choice words for them which I would probably have to repent of later.

But as a parent, part of me understands Jim and Ambrose forbidding Bernie (Jim's daughter) to fight.  About the worst thing you can do to a parent is to put their child in harm's way.  If you want to see the true meaning of 'going medieval on someone' (a la Pulp Fiction), mess with one of my kids.

While Freedom's Island is a work of fiction, some of the events in the book actually took place in the American South after the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression as some folks around here still call it).  The story is amazing - and it will make you think.

When you reach the last page of Freedom's Island, and finally close the cover, you will sigh - partly in sadness because you still wonder what happens to Ambrose and Jerusha, Jim and Bernie and the other citizens of Willow Bend.  But you also experience the deep satisfaction of having read a tale of incredible substance.


Historical novelist Sabra Waldfogel, author of Slave and Sister and Freedom’s Island, grew up far from the South in Minneapolis. She studied history at Harvard University and received her Ph.D. in American History from the University of Minnesota, and since then, has been fascinated by the drama of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. In her free time, not tired of history, she collects antiques and helps her husband sell them.


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(Disclosure:  I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.)

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