A Free State: Book summary and reviews of A Free State by Tom Piazza

A Free State

A Novel

by Tom Piazza

A Free State by Tom Piazza X
A Free State by Tom Piazza
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  • Published in USA  Sep 2015
    256 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Book Summary

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.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Blending his fondness for the music of the era with concerns about American race relations, Piazza (City of Refuge) offers a fresh approach for fans of Civil War historicals with its integration of blackface entertainment into this story of escape." - Library Journal

"A thoughtful examination of the intertwining of race and culture—as well as a truly scary portrait of a genuine psychopath." - Kirkus

"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

"[A Free State] has great kinetic energy, a gripping central narrative, and a host of indelible characters. 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

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Author Information

Tom Piazza

Tom Piazza is the author of the novels City of Refuge and My Cold War, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, the essay collection Devil Sent the Rain, and many other works. He was a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.

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