What is freedom? And if a man is free, is his passage through life made easier, more significant? Sending his son across the sea from America to England, Jimmy Gate’s white father seeks only to offer his son a chance in the world. His free papers and a copy of the Declaration of Independence packed with his few belongings, Jimmy leaves behind a slave mother. He enjoys a few years of schooling in a society that doesn’t reject him.
When the boy’s father drowns on his voyage to finally visit his son, Jimmy is sent to a workhouse, there learning the harsh lessons of poverty. He takes advantage of opportunity and books passage back to America at seventeen. With few memories of plantation life, Jimmy clings to the lessons of his father: “We do not live for ourselves. But we are free.”
Arriving in the states on the cusp of the War Between the States, the young man has not yet found a definition for himself or his place among strangers, determined to return to his plantation home and buy his mother’s freedom.
Caught up in the war, Jimmy meets a hero he has read about in England, the revolutionary Irish Colonel Cornelius O’Keefe. Thinking to match his dream to reality amid the mass confusion of the war, Jimmy travels with the Irish unit, part of something greater than himself. But even here, he is beset by questions about the direction of his life as a free man, quickly learning that the Union soldiers resent the slaves they are dying for and have never met.
David Allan Cates engages his protagonist in a struggle for identity built on the beliefs of a dead father, precious little to create an existence of meaning and substance. By the time he is caught by the rebels and turned into a grave digger, Jimmy learns that papers do nothing to protect him against the hostilities of others. Finally, forced into a terrible, pivotal choice, the young man claims his right to exist, renaming himself Freeman Walker.
As Walker, he chooses to leave the field of battle and follow the lure of gold in the Wild West, where he may yet purchase his future security. Haunted by his otherness and the significance of that fact, Freeman begins the next phase of his quest, having known few friends or relationships save with fancy women, barely surviving his circumstances and achieving the security of wealth.
Even here the lessons are harsh, relentless. Cates pulls no punches, avoids no hard truths, Freeman scrambling over harsh terrain that offers little solace beyond what he can manufacture in his imagination. Clinging to his father’s teachings, Freeman fails to thrive in a lawless place, marked again and again by his race as an object of scorn.
Cates’ protagonist is a study of humanity at a time of war, the final chapters a rambling account of a hero gone mad, an Indian of exceptional valor and the battered Freeman Walker wandering through a maze of vague hopes: “Out here there was nobody left to see me, nobody left to name me but me.”