The author of City of Refuge returns with a startling and powerful novel of race, violence, and identity set on the eve of the Civil War.
The year is 1855. Blackface minstrelsy is the most popular form of entertainment in a nation about to be torn apart by the battle over slavery. Henry Sims, a fugitive slave and a brilliant musician, has escaped to Philadelphia, where he earns money living by his wits and performing on the street. He is befriended by James Douglass, leader of a popular minstrel troupe struggling to compete with dozens of similar ensembles, who imagines that Henry’s skill and magnetism might restore his troupe’s sagging fortunes.
The problem is that black and white performers are not allowed to appear together onstage. Together, the two concoct a masquerade to protect Henry’s identity, and Henry creates a sensation in his first appearances with the troupe. Yet even as their plan begins to reverse the troupe’s decline, a brutal slave hunter named Tull Burton has been employed by Henry’s former master to track down the runaway and retrieve him, by any means necessary.
Bursting with narrative tension and unforgettable characters, shot through with unexpected turns and insight, A Free State is a thrilling reimagining of the American story by a novelist at the height of his powers.
“Once I’d begun reading Tom Piazza’s A Free State, I couldn’t leave my chair. It combines bite-your-nails tension with deeply felt evocations of the brutalities of slavery, the perplexities of racial masquerading and the transcendent joys of making music. Piazza is unerringly accurate on both 19th-century voices and 19th-century sensibilities, but he’s got a 21st-century esthetic: at the end of the novel he executes a swerve so bold—and that’s all I’m telling—it’ll take your breath away.” —David Gates, author of Jernigan and A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me
“Though set on the eve of the Civil War, A Free State is really about the present—the endless, vexed performance that we call American life. This rich novel about minstrelsy, slavery, and the dream of escape shows that our demons and our angels haven’t changed much. But the portrait of the struggle is so insightful that it becomes its own strong vision of hope.”
—Zachary Lazar, author of I Pity the Poor Immigrant and Sway
“A Free State takes you into a past time and an unfamiliar world, and yet it resonates strongly with the familiar present. It has great kinetic energy, a gripping central narrative, and a host of indelible characters. It raises questions about the intersections of identity, race, power, and culture. It delicately unravels the convoluted pathways of minstrelsy as a salve to the conscience. And, in the current age of identity politics, it speaks to the prevailing cultural obsession with ‘authenticity’ by exposing the fragility of that very notion. A hugely rewarding novel.”
—Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane