Freeman Walker
  • Freeman Walker
  • Freeman Walker

Freeman Walker

3.6 3
by David Allen Cates

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Freeman Walker is a story told by a mulatto slave, Jimmy Gates, freed by his owner-father when he is 7-years-old, separated from his mother and everything he holds dear. After receiving an unforgettable talk by his father about the rules of life he will no doubt discover on his journeys, and a copy of the Declaration of Independence, he is sent to England to get…  See more details below


Freeman Walker is a story told by a mulatto slave, Jimmy Gates, freed by his owner-father when he is 7-years-old, separated from his mother and everything he holds dear. After receiving an unforgettable talk by his father about the rules of life he will no doubt discover on his journeys, and a copy of the Declaration of Independence, he is sent to England to get an education. Jimmy, in the first of the novel’s great ironies, has had a blissful, loving childhood and never understood he wasn’t free until his new “freedom” enslaves him miserably.

Despite his loneliness for home, he learns fast and well and makes himself a good and popular student. Four years pass, and while he is waiting for his father to visit for the first time, he learns that his father’s ship has sunk and his father has drowned at sea. Bereft of financial support, mourning still his long lost mother and now his father’s death, Jimmy is sent to a London workhouse where he spends six years making saddles, reading heroic novels to his companions, being sexually abused by the proprietor, finding the comfort of prostitutes, and discovering the inspirational speeches of an Irish revolutionary named Cornelius O’Keefe, or O’Keefe of the Sword.

When he is 18, dreaming himself a warrior and a hero, he returns to the States to rescue his mother. While looking for his mother in northern Virginia—he discovers that if he wears a hat he can pass for white—he gets caught in a major battle. Jimmy is overjoyed to be able to take part, but is soon overwhelmed by its horror. Untrained, and unattached to any unit, he nevertheless has a chance meeting with O’Keefe of the Sword, who is now a Union General leading a brigade of Irishmen. Jimmy saves O’Keefe on the battlefield, but later is captured himself by Confederate forces, and again made a slave, spending the next two years attached to a confederate regiment digging graves. When his unit is overrun and he is found shackled in a root cellar with his friend, a Yankee officer presents to him a terrible choice, stay locked up, or commit an atrocity and go free. He chooses to walk free.

He changes his name to Freeman Walker and as he reinvents himself once again and makes his way into the mythic territory of the Great American West, the novel begins to change. He hopes to live peacefully by getting rich, and he does live peacefully and get rich, for a while. But his race catches up again, and he is lynched, and he loses his treasure, and he surrenders to the mud on the side of the road, and looks forward to the coming winter and his own demise.

But into the territory that winter rides the new territorial governor, none other than his childhood hero, Cornelius O’Keefe, who the war has turned into a pacifist. Freeman’s life changes once more as he becomes O’Keefe’s secretary, and the two of them, joined by a half-breed captain named Felix Belly—three outcasts—form the only government in the Territory, a wild and savage place run by vigilantes. Their quixotic attempt to stop the vigilantes from a campaign of terror against the Natives spurs a terrible but noble adventure and brings Freeman a kind of rebirth in which he finally comes to understand the meaning of moral freedom.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"...this novel reminds one of the work of Mark Twain or Charles Dickens with a entertaining focus on detail and lively characters."—Historical Novels Quarterly

“A gritty, sweeping work of historical fiction.”—Library Journal

“Resonating with hints of Dickens … and Faulkner….David Allen Cates gives us a vivid story about complex characters, a novel of gripping consequence. Cates is to be thanked and congratulated.” --William Kittredge, author of The Next Rodeo: New and Selected Essays and A Hole in the Sky

"A beautifully composed, morally resonant tale that will stay in my mind a long time. Unless my powers of prognostication are totally faulty, this book is going to a big hit."—Steve Yarbrough

Publishers Weekly

In his disappointing third novel, Cates writes an implausible story from the viewpoint of a freed slave named Jimmy Gates. Jimmy (who later changes his name to Freeman Walker), the son of a slave and her master, receives his "freedom papers" and a copy of the Declaration of Independence (both recurring symbols) from his father before being sent away to a British boarding school. He quickly assimilates with his white classmates and teachers, but after his father drowns while crossing the Atlantic to visit, Jimmy leaves school and finds work making horse saddles. Nearing adulthood, he returns to the U.S. just as the Civil War begins. After deciding he does not want to be a soldier, he sets off for the gold mines of the American West. Unfortunately, Cates misses the grand picaresque possibilities, and the novel grows frustratingly diffuse as Jimmy becomes less an intriguing guide and more a caricature. (Oct.)

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Library Journal

Cates's third novel (after Hunger in America and X Out of Wonderland) is a gritty, sweeping work of historical fiction, written in the first person, about the adventures of Freeman Walker (aka Jimmy Gates), a cherished mulatto child born to a black slave woman and a married white farmer in 1840s Maryland. When Freeman turns seven, his wise and caring father makes his only son a "free man" with papers and sends him to a British boarding school. When his education in England ends several years later, Freeman finds himself in a Dickensian situation. At age 18, he returns to America, hoping to fight as a heroic Civil War soldier and also to find his mother. However, he soon flees the horror of battle and heads west. How he copes with his roller-coaster destiny is a testament to his strength of spirit and to his father's guiding conviction that "we do not live for ourselves." Contending with his mixed heritage and later with becoming crippled, Freeman exhibits a sharpened outlook concerning human nature. The novel's other characters are sometimes likable and sometimes not, but all are originals. Recommended for larger fiction collections.
—Maureen Neville

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Product Details

Unbridled Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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A Novel

Copyright © 2008

David Allan Cates
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932961-55-3

Chapter One LOVE

WHEN I WAS A boy I had little interest in freedom, but my father did, so when I was seven years old he freed me, and I was sent across the sea with a change of clothing in a little black maw and a rolled-up copy of the Declaration of Independence that I could not read.

That's true, and so my story begins.

Or I could begin earlier, say, at my conception. There, you might say, if you were the kind to say it, is the Original Sin. The cause of it all! Because my father was the legal owner of my mother, you presume her consent, being unnecessary, was not given. But that would be like saying that songs, being unnecessary, aren't sung.

(Your father, after all, might have taken your mother by force, but do we presume it?)

Of course I'm aware that the Sweet Grass Farm, like the rest of the world, was a place of pain and difficulty, indeed horrors of human suffering-but these horrors happened to other people and not to me. Mama and I lived in a cabin along the river bottom. Our job was to tend the dairy cows, milk them, make butter, and take care of the calves. My parents loved one another and they loved me-I knew that the way a child knows anything, in my body-and I loved them, and was happy for a while.

But all happiness ends. What is unique is the cause. In my case, it was my father's love and aspirations for me, his only son, combined with his obligations to his legal wife and his desire to please my mother that moved him to strike the fetters from my limbs, as he said, and send me to England to study.

The first hint that the day of my new life had arrived-that I was being conceived again-was the carriage. My father was a walker. He rarely even rode a horse. So to see him arrive at the cabin that morning in a carriage pulled by a splendid team of grays was indeed different.

Excited, I ran to greet him, and there received the second hint: a package with new clothes. He lifted me up onto a large flat sitting stump in our yard and helped me dress. I remember his big fingers doing a lot of buttons on the shirt and trousers, but mainly I remember him slipping on the boots. I loved how they looked and smelled, shiny and tall, and I loved how they looked like his boots, but I hated how they felt to stand in. They separated my feet from the earth with a thick sole and heel, and boxed in my toes and weighed down my step. They felt as unnatural to me as a mouth full of cotton.

Nevertheless, enjoying the novelty of the occasion, I happily stepped up into the carriage and took my place across from my father on a soft leather seat. He was dressed in an identical black suit and wore a high beaver-felt hat. He held another one on his lap, which he handed to me. It was a miniature version of his, and I took it with more pride than you can imagine. I put it on. I tilted it at just the same angle as his. The carriage smelled of oil and smoke, and seeing me sitting across from him, booted and hatted just as he was, my father smiled at me in a tight, uncharacteristic way that might have been my third hint.

But what happy child can anticipate losing everything he's ever had? Especially wearing such a respectable hat and hearing the driver click his tongue and feeling the team suddenly lurch forward? Here I must have asked where we were going, because I remember him saying, "To say good-bye to your mother."

Which still did not make me worry. I assumed we were going on an errand, on an outing, and I imagined myself waving from the carriage and Mama looking at me wearing my hat with the same pride and love I sometimes saw in her face when she looked at my father. I imagined all of that, and hoped for it as the carriage followed the trace down to the run where the cattle lolled in the cool shade. Auntie Luck told us Mama was in the field, but when we went there we were told she was in the woods on nature's call. We waited; she did not return. I begged my father to direct the carriage one last time to the cabin, where I was sure she must be by now. I wanted to see her face when she saw me step out of the carriage and walk tall in my new boots and hat.

As we approached, I thought I saw smoke rising from the chimney. We stopped, but instead of making the dignified entrance I'd imagined, I jumped off the carriage and ran through the grass to the cabin door. I opened it and waited a moment while my eyes adjusted to the dark. Was that her bent by the fireplace stirring coals? Before I could call out, she disappeared and the coals turned to ash. My heart dropped and I was about to turn, but she appeared again suddenly, this time standing at the basin, her back turned.

Mama? I didn't recognize my voice. I was not unaccustomed to seeing spirits, but I was used to them being dead. And just that morning, my mother had been alive enough to tickle me awake.

Look at eve, Mama, I said, but she disappeared again. I could smell her, though-so she was close, or her ghost was. Then I saw her on a bench before me at the door shelling peas, her brown face bent over her work.


She wouldn't look up. Her fingers worked the pods. I wanted her to look up and see my new stiff white collar and black suit, see what she'd call my tall civ'lized hat and tall civ'lized boots, see how much I looked like my father.

Look at me, I said again in my new voice.

Finally she did, but her eyes were black and empty. She touched the scar where her left ear should have been. I'd seen the scar but never until that moment understood that there used to be an ear there, that once upon a time she'd had two, just like me.

Where'd your ear go, Mama?

I ran, she answered, and I pictured the ear coming off by the sheer speed of her running.

Ran? Where?

"Not here?" It was my father, and at the sound of his voice-he sounded terribly sad-Mama disappeared again. The bench was suddenly empty, no bowl of shelled peas, either. Where had she gone? Had I merely imagined her? I felt his hand on my shoulder, then on my hand. I looked again at the empty cabin but felt my father pulling me away. I glanced up at his face, at his long dark nostrils and the cloud of anger on his brow, his slit-mouth deliberately calm. I was disappointed that Mama wasn't there to see me in my civilized clothes, and we hadn't said good-bye, but I couldn't have suspected then what I do now-and what most likely my father knew-that his legal wife, out of respectable spite, had sent my mother on an errand hours ago.

He asked me to close the door and come along. Asked, not commanded, and that was a crucial difference. Because regardless of the fact that I was a seven-year-old boy and did not have a choice at all, it was with my own hand, the one not being held by my father and master, that I closed the door on the old-wood-and-mildew smell of the cabin. Closed the door and turned away from the phantom flesh of my mother.

We got back into the carriage and the driver clicked his tongue and the team began to trot. I watched my father's face as he turned to look out the window at the passing trees and fields in the glaring light of midday. I was waiting for him to tell me something but for a long while he seemed unable to speak. He was not, generally, a distant man. He was playful and quick to wrestle, to tickle, to kiss me. He was a flesh-and-blood body to me. When we walked in the woods, he held my hand. When we sat in the shade, I sat so close his sweat was my sweat, his smell was mine. I can still see his green eyes lively as new leaves and the full flush of his cheeks beneath his thin blond beard. When we played whaler in the creek (I was the whaler, he the whale) he'd throw me in the air and I'd laugh to see water roll off his big white back and monster head.

But that moment, in the carriage, I saw his face as I had never seen it before and his sadness scared me. Maybe because of that fear, and maybe because after too much silence I was suffocating for the sound of his voice, and maybe because when he finally did speak he deliberately touched each of his fingers and thumb before each sentence, and maybe because he used the pronoun we, which served to intensify our intimacy as the horses broke into a gallop and the carriage began to sway-maybe for all of those reasons I have never forgotten what he said to me.

"We," he said, and he touched his little finger, "all suffer."

Then he touched his ring finger, bent it back almost ninety degrees before straightening it again. "And we are all going to die. It's a law of nature. You know these things already."

He swallowed. I swallowed. I watched him touch his middle finger and pause as though he found this one the most difficult to contemplate. He blinked rapidly, nodded beyond me to the passing world out the window, the world we were leaving behind-my mother?

"We are not in control," he said.

I could not take my eyes off him. I tried to swallow again but my throat felt dry and swollen. I was dying to unbutton my collar but dared not.

"It will take becoming a man," he said, "to learn these last two. First-" He touched his pointer. "We do not live for ourselves." Then he made a fist and shook it slightly as if he were holding something precious that he could feel and did not want to let go.

He lifted his thumb and whispered, "But we are free!"

I blinked back tears, swallowed hard, and turned my gaze to the window. That's when he explained where I was going: to the port, to board a ship that would sail with the tide at dawn. I didn't know what to say. The sky was a magnificent blue and the breeze bent the crowns of the trees along the road. Sail with the tide. I had only the vaguest notion of what that might mean.

He pulled some papers from his pocket and showed them to me, although I could not read. One was the rolled-up copy of the Declaration of Independence. He slipped it into my pocket and said it was civilized law-the law of men aspiring to be divine. He said I should keep it and learn to read it. Then he showed me other papers that were folded in an envelope.

"Men's law," he said.

I started to take the envelope but he said he'd keep it for now and give it to the captain. Before he slipped it back inside his coat, he pointed to the two words on the envelope: "James Gates," he said.

I had always been Jimmy. He had always been Mr. Gates.

"James Gates." The words felt odd in my mouth.

"Because you're my son," he said, and smiled.

I wanted to smile, too. He must have sensed my confusion, for he patted the papers in his coat pocket. "Your free papers," he said. I might have asked why I needed those, why they were mine, because he said a word that I don't remember ever having heard before, at least not applied to me. I repeated it, feeling my tongue slide easily across the surface of the sound, closing it with my teeth and lip.


He looked at his watch, seemed for a moment to be calculating the time, and said he'd show me.

So before we boarded the ship he took me to a crowded market. He held my hand as we pushed our way through more people than I had seen in my entire life. I was overwhelmed by the smells and colors, by the sound of so many voices and the sheer variety of the human face. Who were these people? Where did they come from? Were they also going to sail with the tide at dawn?

To abate my confusion, I looked straight up at my father's face, his slit nostrils and long thin nose and the blue sky beyond his head, and that was how I kept my balance.

Soon he halted and liked me by the armpits up over his head to his shoulders, where I straddled his neck and peeked around the sweat-stained crown of his tall civilized hat to see a barely dressed-naked, really-Negro man and woman and two children on a raised wooden platform. Chains connected shackles from their necks to their ankles. I'd never seen shackles before and they terrified me, as did the man pointing to the people wearing the shackles with a long stick and calling out numbers to other men who called out more numbers.

I focused on the children, a boy slightly older than I, and a girl a bit younger. The girl had scabs on the right side of her face and the boy had long muscular arms and black skin shiny as tar, an empty socket where his right eye should have been. The two of them sat in the heat and stared with three spooky yellow eyes at something above our heads.

"Your mother," my father said, "was auctioned away from her parents as a girl, and that's why-"

He squeezed my ankles hanging down on each side of his neck and then turned and walked away through the crowd. I was confused. Was he thinking what I was thinking? Of Mama running, of her ear flying off? From his shoulders I could see down the long street to white gulls flying arcs over the blue harbor.

Just before dusk he said good-bye to me on board the ship. The pier smelled of fish and tar. He assured me that he'd come to visit at the end of the school year but that seemed so far in the future as to be irrelevant. He told me that miserable as it might feel to leave, staying at Sweet Grass would in time make me more so. He said this country was diseased, and he was sending me away to save me. He said he used to think civilization moved west until he'd been to the jungles of Mississippi to visit his brother and seen the horrors of what men do to other men when they can, when there's nothing to stop them. He told me the school in England would take care of me-I'd be taught to read and think, and have a chance to become the free man God meant for me to become. His kiss on my forehead left a wet spot that I resisted wiping even as I stood at the rail and watched him hand my papers to the captain, walk down the gangplank, and disappear across the crowded dock.

It was the close of a hot July day, not unlike the day before or the day that surely followed. Yet when the cool spot of his kiss finally dried, I found myself separated from everything I loved and everyone who loved me.

ON BOARD SHIP I was given my own compartment and then left alone to mourn. In the dark I could feel the pitch and roll of the ship, hear the creak of the timbers and the occasional shouts of the crew. The first morning I dared a peek out on deck, but the sight of the gray sea and the sky forever in all directions frightened me and I quickly threw myself back onto my bunk. I slept and cried all day and night and day and night again. My grief must have alarmed the captain, for he sent for me to be picked up by the ears and carried into the dining area. When I refused to sip the wretched soup, an old man with the dirtiest fingers I'd ever seen pushed rancid chunks of cod into my mouth while he proclaimed over and over again that a boy like me ought to be grateful.

This happened often enough during the voyage that for many years afterward I confused the words grateful with nauseated.

The difficulty of this trip cannot be underestimated. It marked me forever, and even when I say or write the words ocean or ship, I think of that experience and feel again the yawning solitude that swallowed me. I didn't want to cross the sea. I didn't want to study-whatever that meant. And what good was freedom if I had no control?

We all suffer. My father had assumed I already knew this. But I didn't. I was a child. I only knew that I suffered.

I arrived so ill that I remember nothing of my transport from the ship to Hodgson Academy, a half day's carriage ride from London. I remember only waking from my fever on a comfortable bed in a small white room with a table, a chair, and a lamp. Here I was brought regular meals and a change of sheets by a woman with what I assumed must have been a great fear that if she moved her mouth to speak, or smiled, her hard white face would crack like an egg. In silence I was served, in silence my bed was changed, and in silence I was peeked at and prodded for signs of the lingering disease of my diseased country. Night fob lowed day followed night. Had I dreamed water as far as I could see, water that touched the sky? I remembered the plantation and its grasses and trees, the cool stream where I played with my father, the taste of bare dirt outside our door and the salt on my mother's skin, the sound of voices, dogs, cows-the smell of my mother and the cabin: these things had been separated from me by ocean and by time. How much? I didn't know. Did it matter? Once I closed the door on the cabin, the door was closed. It happened-or did I dream that, too?


Excerpted from FREEMAN WALKER by DAVID ALLAN CATES Copyright © 2008 by David Allan Cates. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Freeman Walker 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jimmy Gates is the son of a slave and her master. He receives his 'freedom papers' and a copy of the Declaration of Independence from his father who sends him to England to be educated at a boarding school. He adapts to his all white surroundings with ease and is doing well at school.---------------- However, everything changes when his father, coming to England to see his pre-teen offspring, drowns during the Atlantic crossing. Jimmy quits school and obtains work in England making horse saddles which he does for six years. As the Civil War explodes Jimmy, calling himself Freeman Walker, returns to the States. However, the eighteen years old Freeman opts not to join the army, but instead heads west seeking gold.-------------- Jimmy-Freeman is more a symbol of a relatively forgotten group, the free black, during the years just prior to and during the Civil War. Thus he never fully gets past the role of representative as major events seem impervious to his story. Still this is a fascinating look at somewhat ignored piece of American history as the reader obtains a deep look at what a free black had to do to survive in a world that always assumed he had to be a runaway slave.--------------------- Harriet Klausner
Twink More than 1 year ago
"When I was a boy I had little interest in freedom, but my father did, so when I was seven years old he freed me, and I was sent across the sea with a change of clothing in a little black maw and a rolled-up copy of the Declaration of Independence that I could not read".

I was hooked by this opening line in David Allan Cate's third novel from Unbridled Books.

Jimmy Gates is sent to England for an education and to escape the racial constraints of the States. However when his father dies, he is sent to the workhouse. He passes some years in the company of thieves and prostitutes. He listens to the speeches of an Irish revolutionary named O'Keefe and dreams of returning to the States as a warrior himself, to find and rescue his mother.

The young Jimmy Gates is an innocent, completely unaware of slavery and what the colour of his skin means to some. He is a gentle, thoughtful boy. As he grows into a young man, his personality changes and he displays a violent, calculating, angry demeanour. At this point I didn't like him very much.

Upon his arrival back in the States, he is surprised to find himself held in such low regard, even though he is a free man. Violence, anger and intolerance is visited upon him. He ends up 'enlisted' in the Civil War, still hoping to find his mother.

He crosses paths with the Irishman O'Keefe again. Their futures seem to be inextricably intertwined. Jimmy Gates renames himself Freeman Walker.

I had expected this novel to be more historical in tone. Although it certainly uses historical events and attitudes, they are simply the vehicle. It is the characters and their dreams, ideas and passions that drive the novel. Freeman Walker is a memorable protagonist, discovering the harsh price paid for freedom.

However, I found my interest waning in the latter part of the novel. An element of magic, faeires and ghost armies is introduced which I felt detracted from what I had already read. I was looking for more about the search for his mother. This is reduced to almost a footnote at the end of a chapter.

The ending is satisfying though.

"Yet out here there was nobody left to see me, nobody left to name me but me."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I Found myself loosing interest toward the end, but it was a nice read overall.