When writer Wayne Grady was 47 years old, he discovered a family secret. His father, whom he had known as a white man, was in fact a Black man passing for white. This revelation inspired Grady, a veteran non-fiction writer, to switch genres and produce his first novel, Emancipation Day, which re-imagined his parents’ story (and won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award). Eventually, Grady followed his genealogical ancestry, which led him to Indiana in 1850 – the source and setting for his second novel, a further re-imagining of his family history.
Set a little more than a decade before the U.S. Civil War, Up from Freedom centres on the life of Virgil Moody, the son of a Georgia plantation owner, who may have forsworn his past but can never quite outrun it. The book begins in 1848, in the dying days of the Mexican-American War, just as Moody is about to return to his family and his plot of Texas land on the banks of the Rio Brazos.
But his is no ordinary family. Annie, whom he calls his wife, is actually an enslaved woman he rescued from his father’s plantation and its harsh overseer. Her son, Lucas, was born in New Orleans but was never officially freed. The family’s unusual situation becomes more complicated when the adult Lucas falls in love with Benah, enslaved by a nearby farm.
The love affair sets in motion a disastrous chain of events that eventually places Lucas and Benah on the run as fugitives, with a forlorn Moody attempting to catch up with the couple and find redemption for himself. But even as he pursues Lucas, he recognizes that “some things are forgotten, but nothing is ever forgiven.”
Grady takes readers on the long and dangerous trip northward in the footsteps of the fugitives, though this journey is seen through the eyes of Moody. He comes across thieves, abolitionists (both male and female), Black and white men working the rivers, “catchers” on the prowl to kidnap fugitives back to the South, and even the fossil of an ancient reptile. The story does feel a bit meandering but its progression has a raison d’être: attaining verisimilitude in representing the difficulty of tracking Lucas and Benah.
In Freedom, Indiana, Moody meets Tamsey, a former slave, and her family. They have their free papers in a state that has abolished slavery, but they nevertheless intend to flee to the safety of Canada. Haunted by his past, Moody decides to help them as a means of atoning for his misdeeds, although this, too, proves more difficult than expected. Tamsey becomes the conscience of the novel, prodding Moody to finally confront the question of whether he has ever done right by his family.
A resolute sadness permeates Up from Freedom as it tries to encapsulate a dark period in American history. The novel doesn’t quite break one’s heart, perhaps because of the emotional distance involved in having a white protagonist filter the voices of Annie and Tamsey. But reading it does resonate with a contemporary world in which prejudice and violence never seem all that far away.