Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson, 398 pages, Can be read in a about 8 hours depending on your speed, Middle Grade
A quote that I really appreciated: “I learned how hurting can be caught, like a cold, or the pox. That’s the thing about plantations: Even if you stay away from being hit, you can’t keep away from the hurting.” Homer, p. 41
This book was not on my original February to be read pile. We got enough snow on Wednesday that campus actually closed down and I had a real snow day. None of my original books felt right, so I drove to the library—in the snow—to pick this up. It was just released on February 1st, so I was thrilled to see they had it already.
Freewater is Luqman-Dawson’s debut novel and wow! What a debut! And what a fantastic way to start Black History Month.
Drawing on the history of “maroon communities,” Freewater follows the lives of a half dozen or so characters over the course of about two months. We open with Homer, a 12-year-old Black boy running away from Southerland, a plantation, with his 7-year-old sister, Ada. Sadly, Homer and Ada’s mother Rose gets caught (a fact Homer blames himself for) and cannot join them.
Over the course of the book, we watch as Homer and Ada make their way (with some help) to a community of freed Black people living in the swamps, called Freewater, and build a live there. Along the way, we also meet and learn about the lives of other characters, including Anna, Homer’s friend; Nora, the Master’s daughter; Sanzi, Billy, Ferdinand, and Juna, all children either born in Freeland or who escaped to Freeland; and a few others.
Live in Freeland is peaceful and enjoyable for most everyone there. Homer and Ada learn the true meaning of being free and what it means to live in a community of people just like them. As one might imagine, however, Homer desperately wants to help his mother and a good friend of his escape the plantation and bring them to Freewater. In the final main act of the book, Homer, Ada, Sanzi, Billy, Ferdinand, and Juna all join forces to free Rose and Anna and steal tools from Southerland. I won’t spoil the ending, but, needless to say, this section of the story is really helps us see how all of the characters have grown from the beginning of the book until the end.
What I really loved about this book is the way Luqman-Dawson was able to capture the emotional difference between freedom and life on the plantation. Most of the book centers on Homer and Ada’s time building a new life in Freewater. While reading these chapters, you get a sense of joy, calmness, and normalcy. Yes, the community includes patrollers and plot points of dealing with possible threats of being discovered, but it is not the focus of their lives. In many ways, reading this section feels like reading journal entries or “day in the life” stories.
But when the children arrive back at Southerland, the mood changes. There is definitely a sense of dread, anxiety, and tension. It’s as if the reader is also feeling “the hurting” Homer refers to in the quote above.
And yet, the shift in emotion is subtle. And it’s a testament to Luqman-Dawson’s abilities. She never comes out and says how we are supposed to feel, beyond a few references of Homer reflecting on his newfound freedom. But through the writing and the story, the shift in the weight of the place is as clear as day. And as someone who studies place in my own academic research, I really appreciated this focus on space.
What I also really loved about this book is that the focus is not necessarily on the fact that Homer and Ada were enslaved or that they escaped a plantation. Those facts drive the plot, but they are not the point. The point, and the focus, is on what people can accomplish and the lives they can lead when left to their own devices. And what we find is that, when given the choice, people will build a world of community, love, laughter, family.
If any of these themes appeal to you, I highly recommend this book. And, bonus, you’ll learn about maroon communities along the way!