A Free State
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A Free State

3.79 (216 ratings by Goodreads)
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Description

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 lives by his wits and earns money performing on the street. He is befriended by James Douglass-leader of the Virginia Harmonists, a minstrel troupe struggling to compete with dozens of similar ensembles-who senses that Henry's skill and magnetism could restore his show's sagging fortunes.

The problem is that black performers are not allowed to appear onstage, even in Philadelphia. Together the two concoct a dangerous masquerade to protect Henry's identity, and he creates a sensation in his first appearances with the Harmonists. Yet even as the troupe's fortunes begin to improve, a brutal slave hunter named Tull Burton has been employed by Henry's former master to track down the runaway and retrieve him, dead or alive.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 272 pages
  • 134 x 203 x 18mm | 210g
  • HarperCollins
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • Reprint
  • 0062284134
  • 9780062284136
  • 1,760,949

Back cover copy

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 lives by his wits and earns money performing on the street. He is befriended by James Douglass--leader of the Virginia Harmonists, a minstrel troupe struggling to compete with dozens of similar ensembles--who senses that Henry's skill and magnetism could restore his show's sagging fortunes.

The problem is that black performers are not allowed to appear onstage, even in Philadelphia. Together the two concoct a dangerous masquerade to protect Henry's identity, and he creates a sensation in his first appearances with the Harmonists. Yet even as the troupe's fortunes begin to improve, a brutal slave hunter named Tull Burton has been employed by Henry's former master to track down the runaway and retrieve him, dead or alive.
show more

Review quote

Informed by history of a reviled and forgotten idiom, loving scholarship about the banjo, and the very passport to freedom of body and spirit, this beautiful writing finds echoes in conflicts that persist-envy, imitation, injustice, brutality, inequality-and ultimately offers hope. I urge you to read it for yourself. --Elvis Costello, NYPL Book Recommendation" Advance Praise for A FREE STATE: 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, author of "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" and "Sway"" ["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, author of "Brick Lane"" Once I d begun reading "A Free State," I couldn t leave my chair. It combines bite-your-nails tension with deeply felt evocations of the brutalities of slavery, the perplexities of racial masquerading and the transcendent joys of making music. At the end he executes a swerve so bold, it ll take your breath away. --David Gates" "Informed by history of a reviled and forgotten idiom, loving scholarship about the banjo, and the very passport to freedom of body and spirit, this beautiful writing finds echoes in conflicts that persist-envy, imitation, injustice, brutality, inequality-and ultimately offers hope. I urge you to read it for yourself."--Elvis Costello, NYPL Book Recommendation "A thoughtful examination of the intertwining of race and culture--as well as a truly scary portrait of a genuine psychopath."--Kirkus Reviews "Once I'd begun reading A Free State, I couldn't leave my chair. It combines bite-your-nails tension with deeply felt evocations of the brutalities of slavery, the perplexities of racial masquerading and the transcendent joys of making music. At the end he executes a swerve so bold, it'll take your breath away."--David Gates "[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, author of Brick Lane Advance Praise for A FREE STATE: "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, author of I Pity the Poor Immigrant and Sway "Piazza's novel vividly depicts a cultural phenomenon through Henry's harrowing journey."--Publishers Weekly "Informed by the history of a reviled and forgotten idiom, loving scholarship about the banjo, and the very passport to freedom of body and spirit, this beautiful writing finds echoes in conflicts that persist--envy, imitation, injustice, brutality, inequality--and ultimately offers hope. I urge you to read it for yourself."--Elvis Costello, Omnivoracious "A page-turning novel about real times that are stranger than fiction."--New York Post "Piazza, an authority on jazz, blues, and bluegrass, includes fascinating nuggets of musical history and period detail... While the book strives to be both a literary thriller and a meditation on the complexities and contradictions of America's cultural heritage, its pleasures are mostly those of the well-paced page-turner."--The New Yorker "This trim historical fiction, set in 1855, has all the components of a thrilling pursuit adventure. But the action of A Free State conceals a deeper purpose, which is to probe, through the medium of 19th Century minstrelsy, elaborate contradictions in the antebellum psyche."--Atlanta Journal-Constitution "Tom Piazza's new novel is a crisply told tale of race relations in Philadelphia a few years before the Civil War, one that brings into sharp relief the tensions that beset Northern society even as it was about to go to war to rid the nation of slavery."--BookPage A thoughtful examination of the intertwining of race and culture as well as a truly scary portrait of a genuine psychopath. --Kirkus Reviews" Once I d begun reading A Free State, I couldn t leave my chair. It combines bite-your-nails tension with deeply felt evocations of the brutalities of slavery, the perplexities of racial masquerading and the transcendent joys of making music. At the end he executes a swerve so bold, it ll take your breath away. --David Gates" [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, author of Brick Lane" Advance Praise for A FREE STATE: 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, author of I Pity the Poor Immigrant and Sway" Piazza s novel vividly depicts a cultural phenomenon through Henry s harrowing journey. --Publishers Weekly" Informed by the history of a reviled and forgotten idiom, loving scholarship about the banjo, and the very passport to freedom of body and spirit, this beautiful writing finds echoes in conflicts that persist envy, imitation, injustice, brutality, inequality and ultimately offers hope. I urge you to read it for yourself. --Elvis Costello, Omnivoracious" A page-turning novel about real times that are stranger than fiction. --New York Post" Piazza, an authority on jazz, blues, and bluegrass, includes fascinating nuggets of musical history and period detail While the book strives to be both a literary thriller and a meditation on the complexities and contradictions of America s cultural heritage, its pleasures are mostly those of the well-paced page-turner. --The New Yorker" This trim historical fiction, set in 1855, has all the components of a thrilling pursuit adventure. But the action of A Free State conceals a deeper purpose, which is to probe, through the medium of 19th Century minstrelsy, elaborate contradictions in the antebellum psyche. --Atlanta Journal-Constitution" Tom Piazza s new novel is a crisply told tale of race relations in Philadelphia a few years before the Civil War, one that brings into sharp relief the tensions that beset Northern society even as it was about to go to war to rid the nation of slavery. --BookPage"
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Rating details

216 ratings
3.79 out of 5 stars
5 22% (47)
4 45% (97)
3 26% (57)
2 5% (10)
1 2% (5)
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