Free Men — Book Review

Free Men cover

What is a free man except a man with money?
Bob, an escaped slave

My life was not my own, but my clan’s.
Istillicha, a Creek Indian

I have been in this country for twelve years, and from every angle I can only see that Americans have made a religion of the individual — it’s seeping already into the discontent slaves and the Indian factions . . .
Louis Le Clerc Milfort, French “tracker and deputy of justice”

Katy Simpson Smith’s second historical novel, Free Men, takes a hard look at one of the values our country holds dear: personal freedom. The American South in the late 18th century was a “landscape of merciless individual pursuit”, but people still longed for human connection. If you’re looking for a page-turner, this is not the book for you. But if you want to read a novel of ideas with gorgeous language, you’ll find Free Men rewarding and thought-provoking.

In  the spring of 1788, seven years after the British surrendered at Yorktown, three desperate men, all fleeing unbearable situations, join forces for a few days in the thick woods of what is now southern Alabama. They rob and murder a group of white traders (“American loyalists”) and their Indian guides. One of the guides escapes and reports the crime to his chief, Seloatka. Le Clerc, a French “gentleman adventurer” who is married to a Creek Indian woman, volunteers to hunt down the three murderers.

Le Clerc himself is on the run, having left behind a wife and a comfortable life in France: “I sought out the new, the republican, the individual,” he says. He cares more about the motives and characters of the three criminals than he does about actually bringing them to justice.  Justice, he says, “became secondary to wisdom.” More interested in the “burgeoning science” of psychology than history or philosophy, Le Clerc wants to hold a “fresh mirror up to the machinations of humanity”.

Each of the “ruthless highway robbers” that Le Clerc  pursues– Bob, an escaped slave, Istillicha, a Creek Indian, and Cat, a broken-hearted widower and farmer — has his own reasons for seeking freedom by heading west through unfamiliar and unsettled territory. They make an unlikely group of comrades; Le Clerc notes that:

In any country in the world they could not subsist together, yet here they were, wandering in a polite clump through woods that belonged apparently to no one, ignoring all the reasons to strike out on their own, to take the money and fall back into their segregated homes, because even America has rules.

The reader learns the basic facts of the story in the first two pages of the book. This is not a plot-driven novel; it’s a novel concerned with why things happened, not what happened. The four major characters — Le Clerc, Bob, Istillicha, and Cat — each, in their own distinctive voices, tell the stories of what brought them to the banks of what is now known as “Murder Creek”. Winna, the wife Bob leaves behind at the plantation, has her own short chapter in the middle of the book, reminding us that not only men sought freedom in the 18th century.

In an interview with Catherine Bock at Parnassus Books in Nashville (which picked Free Men for its First Editions Club in February), Smith said that as a reader, what she loves in a book are “sentences that are startling or playful or lush”. Free Men is full of sentences I’d describe using just those words; in fact, I stopped underlining them after the first couple of chapters because there were so many. Here are a few examples of sentences that stopped me in my tracks:

My brother Primus was dark and shiny, like someone had wrapped an old brown sheet around a boy of gold. (Bob)

There were soft apple spots in my father. (Cat)

I loved my mother’s brother as a boy will love a bear he sees through spaces in the forest. (Istillicha)

Smith, a history Ph.D. and the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, told an interviewer on WNCN in Raleigh, North Carolina that the exciting aspect of writing historical fiction is examining the “emotions and motivations behind people’s actions, which very often in history is something one can only speculate about, especially with the kinds of people who didn’t leave behind written records — the enslaved, women, marginal members of society.” Perhaps she has something in common with Le Clerc, who also wants to understand why people behave as they do.

y6481Smith said “trying to get in the heads of 18th century men was a thrill for me.” While I thought the men’s voices were authentic for the most part, in some instances the characters slip into the mindsets of modern-day Americans. For example, would an 18th century slave say, “. . . this was not a life but a system, and for the first time my boyish grief took on the color of rage”?

If you enjoy literary historical fiction set in America — The Good Lord Bird (James McBride), Middle Passage (Charles Johnson),  The Known World (Edward P. Jones) — you’ll love Free Men. I’ve just started reading Smith’s previous novel, The Story of Land and Sea, which is set during the Revolutionary War on the North Carolina coast, and it’s terrific.





Orphan #8 — Author Interview

The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.
E.L. Doctorow

Orphan #8Orphans are as common in literature as no-good, two-timing liars and cheats are in country music. Cinderella . . . Jane Eyre . . .  Peter Pan and the Lost Boys . . .Heidi . . .Huckleberry Finn . . .  Frodo Baggins . . . Harry Potter . . . the list of brave and noble orphans who succeed against the odds is seemingly endless. Children’s literature, especially, is full of children who have lost parents. Could this be because this is every child’s greatest fear?

Kim van Alkemade’s grandfather, Victor Berger, was not technically an orphan, but he suffered the loss of his father at a young age.  In 1918, Harry Berger, a Russian immigrant working in the shirtwaist industry, ran off to Colorado, leaving Victor and his family destitute. Fannie Berger, “like thousands of parents before her, who, for reasons of death or desertion or illness, were unable to care for their children,” brought her children to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City.

Van Alkemade, an English professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, was conducting family research at the Center for Jewish Research when she discovered archives that inspired her to write Orphan #8.  “The idea of writing a historical novel was the furthest thing from my mind when I opened Box 54 of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum collection,” she writes.  But her curiosity was piqued when she read a motion approved by the orphanage’s Executive Committee: “the purchase of wigs for eight children who had developed alopecia as a result of X-ray treatments given to them at the Home for Hebrew Infants.”

Orphan #8 is the fictionalized story of one of those children, Rachel Rabinowitz, following her throughout her life as she comes to terms with her past as a subject of medical experimentation. Rachel’s struggle to become a whole human being, able to work, love, and even to forgive, absorbed me from start to finish. I’m always fascinated by stories inspired by little-known historical events, and Orphan #8 is moving and well-written. Kim van Alkemade was kind enough to answer my questions about the book and her career.

I read with interest the information on your website about how your family history inspired you to write Orphan #8. What made you decide to write the story as fiction, rather than narrative nonfiction?

There is a lot of my family history in Orphan #8 and I had considered narrative nonfiction for that story, but once I read about the X-ray treatments on the eight children I knew I wanted to imagine what life would have been like for one of these children. By weaving together bits of family history and research, I was able to create an imaginary story that had a compelling narrative arc.

For you, what is the line between fact and fiction? How much liberty do you think a writer of historical fiction can take with historical fact?

The line is: fact is fact, fiction is fiction. Orphan #8 is inspired by true events, but it is not a true story. I made up every character, the settings, the situations, all the dialogue (except for some of the things Dr. Hess says). Even the characters based on my family members are fictional creations. Yes, I incorporated a lot of research, and the main situation of a female orphanage doctor giving X-ray treatments to eight children did happen—but this novel is absolutely fiction. I include as much fact as possible, however, from how much a train ticket from New York to Denver would cost to how doctors treated breast cancer in the 1950s, because I want readers to have an authentic experience. The great thing about historical fiction is that it’s not a dissertation. I can take liberties. I can invent some things. I’m not sure what it’s like for the reader, but I suspect some things that seem very factual I actually made up (like how to make a wig) and other things that seem totally made up are factual (the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society).

What audience, if any, did you have in mind as you were writing the book? (I see the book as having crossover appeal to teenagers who are interested in exploring historical fiction.)

I think Orphan #8 is a great book for mature young adults or new adult readers. There are a couple of sexy moments, and the novel deals with some heavy subjects, so I’d have to say I had an adult audience in mind as I wrote. On the other hand, Rachel is a child or a teenager for half of the book, so I think younger readers could really relate to her.

dormitoryThe term “orphanage” seems quaint now; indeed, most of today’s “orphans” are placed in foster homes, with the goal being family reunification. What is your opinion of how contemporary social service agencies handle children who have no parents or whose parents are unwilling or unable to care for them, compared with the institutional care provided 100 years ago?

In the novel, Rachel considers this very question. Even during the years in which Orphan #8 is set, the large institutional orphanages were falling out of fashion as foster care and group homes were on the rise. The philosophy behind the huge orphanages was that children of poor immigrants were probably better off away from their parents and relatives (if they had them) because the institution could provide a clean, healthy environment that promoted Americanization. In many ways, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum really saved my family. It gave my grandpa and his brothers a stable, predictable home and because my great-grandma worked there, it kept my family together. I’m not sure what alternative my great-grandma had at that time.

Orphan #8 was published as a paperback original. How did your publisher come to this decision, and what effect do you think it will have on the success of the book?

I’m not sure how William Morrow came to this decision,but that was the plan from early on. I’m really pleased about it. Though personally I purchase many hardcover new releases, the price can be steep especially compared to an e-book, so I think paperback is the best of both worlds.

Congratulations on the selection of Orphan #8 as an Indie Next Pick! Do you have a favorite bookstore where you enjoy browsing, and if you do, what makes it special?

In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where I live, our local independent bookstore is Whistlestop Bookshop. I walked in there about a week after I’d gotten the offer for my novel, and the owner, Jeff Wood, said, “I hear we’re going to be selling your book soon.” “How did you hear that?” I asked. “Your mom was in and told me.” That’s a pretty good illustration of the role our local indie bookstore plays in our community! It really is special because everyone who works there knows the customers, it seems that everyone in town knows Jeff, and most of the time when I go in I run into someone I know.

As you undoubtedly know, a whole new phase of a writer’s life begins when the book is published. How do you feel about that? Are you looking forward to promoting the book, which involves writing and public speaking?

Well, I’m a teacher so I’m used to standing in front of people and talking, but I did want my book events to be more entertaining than a lecture, so this summer I took an improv comedy class and it was so much fun! I shed a lot of inhibitions and am thinking of ways to incorporate what I learned when I give readings. I’m really grateful to have this opportunity so even though I was very anxious about social media at the beginning, I’ve learned to embrace it because I want to do my part to promote the book. This morning I was on live television for the first time ever doing a three-minute spot about the book, and I had a good time!

Which contemporary authors (in particular, authors of historical fiction) do you most enjoy reading? When friends ask you for recommendations, what are your “go-to” suggestions?

Recently I’ve read historical fiction by Amy Bloom, Alice Hoffman, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Bernice McFadden, Nina Revoyr, Sarah Waters, David Leavitt and Laird Hunt. I still revere Mary Renault’s historical novels about Alexander the Great—my favorite is The Persian Boy.

Which books and authors have helped you develop into the writer you are today?

I re-read Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow to get up my courage to try historical fiction, and as I was preparing to do my rewrite of Orphan #8 I re-read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder to figure out how she paced the plot and Bel Canto to see how she managed the point-of-view. I also read all three of Donna Tartt’s novels in one month just as The Goldfinch was coming out. She gave me the courage to use the novel to express ideas that were important to me—and to write longer sentences.

I’m sure readers would like to hear more about your career as an English professor. Could you tell us a little about your academic interests and your favorite courses to teach? Are you part of a writers’ group? How do you balance your writing life with your academic responsibilities?

Well, as an undergraduate I was a double-major in English and History, and writing historical fiction has turned out to be a perfect blend of those life-long interests. I teach creative nonfiction, which is what my previous publications have been, as well as composition and technical writing. I enjoy the creativity and autonomy of planning a class. I do have a writer’s group that meets every month and my friends and colleagues are very generous in reading my early drafts. It really comes down to setting a goal for every day. When I am rough drafting, I do a word count, aiming for 1000 words a day. Once I start revising, it’s an hour every morning. I check it off on my calendar. I miss some days, of course, but then I feel crappy so I get back to work.

If we could have a glimpse of your personal library, what would it look like? How is it organized?

I just have everything alphabetical by author, unless it’s a biography. On each shelf, the books I’ve read are upright and the ones I haven’t read yet are on their side. I have the nonfiction and the fiction and the young adult all missed together. When my daughter was in school I read everything she read, so I have a lot of great young adult books. I keep all the picture books on the lowest shelf together so when I have very young visitors they can choose for themselves.

Orphan #8 has is a perfect choice for book clubs. Have you participated in a book club, either as a member or a facilitator? How do you think book groups will respond to your novel?

I am in a book club that meets at my house every other month. We’re an eclectic mix in terms of religion and background and nationality, and we read a diverse selection of contemporary fiction. My group let me practice on them by reading Orphan #8 but most of our discussion ended up being about my family because my mom is in the group, and it was her dad who grew up in the orphanage. From reading blog posts about the novel, I see there are so many ways to respond to it, I think groups will have a lot to talk about!

For reviews of Orphan #8, please visit TLC Book Tours.

Mob Wives Chicago: Renee Rosen’s Dollface

I recently met Renee Rosen at a Palatine Public Library event called Writing the Past– a panel discussion with three historical novelists. Renee and two other Chicago-area writers (Charles Finch, author of the Charles Lenox Victorian mystery series, and Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife, Mrs. Tom Thumb, and Alice I Have Been) talked about the challenges and rewards of writing historical fiction. I’d just finished reading Dollface and was especially interested in Renee’s perspective on historical fiction.

816Several years ago, when Renee published her first novel (Every Crooked Pot, a contemporary novel), I recommended it again and again to both teenagers and adults. Renee’s portrayal of the relationship between a young girl with a disfiguring birthmark and her complicated father has remained one of my favorite coming of age stories. At first, I was surprised that the same Renee Rosen wrote both Every Crooked Pot and Dollface. But both books are about young women who feel like outsiders, struggling to belong and to find out who they are. Vera Abramowitz (a.k.a. “Dollface”), the title character and narrator,  just happens to be a gun moll.

In a Chicago Tribune review, Rick Kogan says:

There are few local writers who are more determined than Rosen. Her first, the novel Every Crooked Pot, was published in 2007, and she has spent the intervening years immersing herself in local history and polishing her style. These have been years well spent and excitingly realized in Dollface.

In the panel discussion, Renee mentioned that her original manuscript focused on male gangsters of Prohibition-era Chicago. In a post on her blog (“The Original Bad Boys”), Renee points out that these deadly criminals were very young men:

When you think of bad boys, they didn’t get any “badder” than Al Capone and Hymie Weiss.  In fact, Hymie Weiss was so bad that even Capone was scared of him.  And yet, in reality these original bad boys were indeed really just a bunch of boys.  During the Roaring ‘20s, the average age of a gangster was probably twenty-five and most of them were gunned down before their thirtieth birthdays.

imagesEveryone knows that Prohibition was a colossal flop that did more to accelerate the consumption of alcohol than curb it. But it was also a breeding ground of opportunity for young street thugs, safe crackers and petty thieves. Practically overnight these kids went from scuffed up boots and soft caps to doubled-breasted suits and fedoras. They suddenly found themselves with money, power and broads. Girls everywhere chucked their corsets, defiantly bobbed their hair and flocked to these dashing young men who were just as forbidden as the hooch they were bootlegging.

Renee followed valuable advice from an editor to “move the men to the sidelines and give your women their due”.  We’re all familiar with Al Capone and his contemporaries, but the story told from the point of view of the female characters is fresh and imaginative.  Vera wrestles with the morality of loving a gangster:

I looked at the others and wondered how they could live with it — knowing what their men had done. I thought I’d found a way to justify it. I told myself that Shep was different from other gangsters, that he would never hurt anyone unless it was in self-defense, that underneath it all, he was a kindhearted, loving man. But what was I supposed to tell myself now that he’d been arrested and was out hunting Capone?

After listening to the panel discussion, I had many more questions for Renee — here’s the Q and A.

I loved your debut novel, Every Crooked Pot. (I’m always on the lookout for adult novels that appeal to teenagers — I’m not a fan of the “YA” genre.) Your second novel, Dollface, is historical fiction and clearly a departure from your first novel. What inspired you to move into historical fiction?

I actually started working on Dollface before Every Crooked Pot was published. I always loved history, especially the 1920s. I was drawn to that era even before Boardwalk Empire and the remake of The Great Gatsby came on the scene. I figured if I was that interested in this time period, maybe others would be, too.

For you, what is the line between fiction and fact? How much liberty do you think a writer of historical fiction can take with the facts? Is Vera Abramowitz based on a real person?

Great question. I’ve talked to other authors about this very thing and I admit that it is something I wrestle with. In Dollface I really tried to be as historically accurate as possible and spent a lot of time on my author’s note in the back to point out wherever I deviated from a timeline or a historical fact. I also tried to indicate what really happened because fact is definitely stranger than fiction, which is one of the great joys of conducting research.

As to how much liberty I take depends in part on how much information is available. For example, in my next book, What The Lady Wants, there was very little written about Marshall Field and Delia Canton’s personal lives so I’ve had to fill in the blanks. However, when I do that, I’m very conscious of basing it on other information that I’ve uncovered.

And lastly, Vera, the main character in Dollface is purely fictional, but again, I tried to make her true to the time.

Which current-day authors do you most enjoy reading? Do you read historical fiction? I read an interview with another historical fiction author who said she never reads historical fiction, only fact, because she is afraid she will then get fact and fiction confused in her mind. 

The usual suspects instantly come to mind: Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Donna Tartt. And yes, I do read historical fiction, though I can see why some would shy away from it. When I started researching Dollface there weren’t a lot of novels based in the 1920s so bleeding fact with fiction wasn’t really an issue. I’m finding many more novels set in my new time period from 1870s – 1900s and I’m loving it. I personally love getting a history lesson in while I’m reading.

If you had lived during the 1920s, what sort of life do you imagine you would have led?

I’m certain that I would not have had half the excitement that Vera has. And that’s a good thing! But knowing me, I’m sure I would have gone to speakeasies and I’m probably just enough of a rebel that I would have bobbed my hair and worn lip rouge. Probably would have flashed a kneecap or two as well!

How long did it take you to write Dollface — and how much of that was spent on research?

I worked on Dollface for about 10 years and the research was ongoing. I found that as the story evolved, I needed to learn more about a particular aspect of that era. I spent a lot of time meeting with people, everyone from Al Capone’s great niece to local historians as well as digging up old newspaper clips from the 1920s. It was really thrilling. I loved every minute of it!

As I’m sure you discovered with the publication of your first book, a whole new phase of a writer’s job begins when the book is published. How do you feel about that? Do you enjoy promoting the book, which involves networking and public speaking?

I’m actually loving it, mostly because I love the material so much. The gangsters and the Roaring Twenties were just fascinating so it’s very easy for me to talk about. I also have a background in advertising and marketing so for me, promotion is second nature. I know a lot of authors struggle with this and for me the most challenging aspect is finding the time to do it all and still continue working on the next book. Because there’s always a next book in the works!

The characters in Dollface are vivid and three-dimensional. Do you identify with any particular character — or with more than one? 

Another really terrific question! I definitely didn’t base any of the characters on myself but I can relate to aspects of their personalities. For example, given her background, I can appreciate why Vera is seeking security and a more glamorous life. I also can understand Evelyn’s insecurities and I feel for her when she tolerates Izzy’s abuse. I loved Shep’s diplomacy as much as Basha’s brashness. And something all the characters do is justify and rationalize their lot in life. I think many of us can relate to that, even if we don’t approve of their choices.

What are your favorite books set in Chicago (besides Dollface!)? (Mine would have to be The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen . . . I also loved Crossing California by Adam Langer.)

I’m with you on The Devil in the White City. I’d also add another non-fiction book, Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.  I adore Sister Carrie and The Jungle and for a fascinating historical overview of the city, I don’t think you can beat City of the Century.

Do you belong to a writers’ group? Do you see yourself as part of the literary community in Chicago and how would you characterize that community? 

I do have a critique partner but I’m not currently part of a writer’s group. However, I would say that I’m fairly involved in the Chicago literary community, which is vibrant and very much alive. There’s an ever-expanding group of folks here comprised of writers, booksellers, reps and agents that meet once every other month for Publishing Cocktails that Keir Graff and Javier Ramirez started up. It’s always at a different location—sometimes we’ll do a cash mob at a bookstore and then move on to a local watering hole, other times, we’ll do a book swap. It’s always great fun.

Something else that has kind of taken on a life of its own is our All-You-Can-Eat-Sushi Lunches. And I know, no one should look for a bargain when it comes to sushi, but we’ve found a great little place (best kept secret in Chicago) and once a month we meet and eat and drink and talk for hours about books and writing and reading. It’s our version of the Algonquin Round Table.

What are your favorite places to go in Chicago — for example, any special parks? museums? restaurants? 

I do adore the Chicago History Museum and the Art Institute. I’m also fortunate enough to have the lakefront within walking distance from my home and there’s nothing better on a beautiful day. Another great thing about Chicago are all the wonderful restaurants—new ones popping up and old favorites you can always count on.

Gang violence continues to plague Chicago. How would you compare the violence that took place nearly 100 years ago with the violence that’s happening today?

Wow, that could be a thesis! I’m sure there are many people more qualified than I am to answer this, but I’ll try. Sadly, there are still a lot of parallels in terms of loyalties, the oath of silence, territories, bloodshed, etc. But, I will say that in the Twenties there were far fewer innocent people and children who became victims of gang violence. I also think that the gangsters of the Twenties saw themselves as businessmen first and foremost. They were much more likely to mingle and do business with other legitimate, established businessmen and even celebrities. Some gangsters, like Capone, even became a celebrity of sorts in his own right.