Douglas Gary Freeman’s Exile Blues incorporates historical events and settings to create an engaging and multi-faceted narrative of survival and strength. We travel with the main character, Preston “Prez” Downs Jr., through his childhood to university and beyond, from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to Canada. Drawn from the author’s own experiences, and inspired by other true events – wielded with sensitivity and grace – the novel provides snapshots of pivotal 20th-century social movements.
Exile Blues begins close to where it ends – with Prez in Montreal, far from his fraught early life. We are then led back to the 1950s and Prez’s innocent beginnings in segregated Washington, D.C., where he learns that he will be treated differently because of the colour of his skin. While we see Prez as a budding activist, we also see him grow up, experiencing family dynamics and making friends. We also witness his budding relationships with young women. Over the course of a complete personal, political, and social coming of age, he challenges the authority of his family, the church, and the education system. Hovering over everything is the shadow of race relations in the U.S., and the tragic, constant way it reaches into Prez’s life and the lives of his loved ones.
One of the most enthralling aspects of Freeman’s book is the immersive nature of the world the author creates. Freeman takes his time to describe his scenes and characters, noting how thick and white the snow is in Montreal, what kind of fabric covers a chair in a seedy cinema, how tall each of Prez’s uncles are, and the precise contrast between a woman’s bright hair and pale face. The occasional asides revealing background, character motivation, or alternate perspectives don’t have the disruptive aspect one might expect. These storytelling elements add weight and insight to the narrative by offering multiple viewpoints on the milieu Freeman is depicting – the characters become richer and the situations more intense and immediate.
To read Exile Blues is to step into the U.S. of the 1950s and ’60s, to engage with African-American youth at the frontlines of fighting and protesting for freedom and equal rights. The reader feels the loss and pain from police brutality and gang violence, understands the insights gained from education, and empathizes with the perils and trials of resistance and activist work. The dialogue is especially authentic and the slang flows smoothly. Carefully placed within the story are almost haunting monologues, calls for non-violence, and visions of the future that are highly evocative of various civil rights leaders. Filled with sharp, loving characters and passionate drama, Exile Blues is a historical journey and a narrative success.