Newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts, who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004, has changed gears with his latest book, Freeman, which takes place a few weeks after the end of the Civil War, “Freeman has probably been in my head for years,” Pitts says, “ever since I read about former slaves and their history, and trying to reunite their family.” The book’s protagonist is on a quest to find his wife, whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years.
“It’s a testimony to the power of love and family,” Pitts says.
This book is close to Pitts’ his heart. He is a fan of historical fiction and has always wanted to write a historical novel. Freeman touches on an aspect of history that is little known.
“A lot of people don’t know what it was like after the civil war.” Pitts says. “It was a mess; it was not just a civil war and 600,000 men dead; right after that, you have the president assassinated, two great traumas right on top of each other.
It’s remarkable that the country survived.”
In Freeman, protagonist Sam Freeman has been away for 15 years after escaping from his owner. There was an ill-advised escape attempt that left his son dead. Freeman’s wife, Tilda, blames Sam for their son’s death.
“That was their only child and it is 15 years later when he returns to look for his Tilda,” Pitts says. “She has been sold, but he doesn’t know it. The original owner was relatively humane and enlightened; she allowed her slaves to learn to read and didn’t believe in separating families. That was why the wife didn’t want to run. But the humane slave owner had financial trouble and had to sell her property, including the slaves.”
Tilda is sold to a brutally cruel man who is slightly crazed from the loss of his son in the war. While Sam is traveling to the south from Philadelphia, the slave owner is forcing Tilda at gunpoint to walk westward from Mississippi in hopes of finding territory where his rights as a slaveholder will be upheld.
“Sam and his wife didn’t get a chance to see each other to grieve, Pitts says. “There is this pain and he needs her forgiveness or for her to slap his face. That added an extra level of emotional complexity. He’s going back not just because he loves her, but because of the emotional pain.”
Pitts says he is fascinated with the idea of what people will do for love and family.
This is Pitts’ third published novel and this time he is working a book tour that will take him to Virginia, North Carolina and four cities in Florida, including a signing date at Books and Books in Coral Gables on June 9 at 7 p.m.
“There’s nothing like being in a book store,” Pitts says. “When you write a book, you’re saying something like, ‘Boy, they’re going to love this!’ But you don’t get feedback until three years later after it is published. I’m looking forward to listening to what people have to say.”
Pitts says that when he writes a column, he gets feedback almost immediately; some good, some bad. Still, even though it takes years for a book to go from concept to publication, Pitts says he would rather write fiction full time.
“But I have been in the middle of things for so long,” says Pitts. “I am sure that if I gave up writing a column there would be times when I would miss being able to insert my opinions into the public discourse.”