My finding Freedom Dues was entirely serendipitous. The author’s first name intrigued me as the name Indra is of (Asian) Indian origin, and I am Indian-American. However, as I have mainly read up on history via non-fiction books, and had little knowledge of the subject and the period in which the book is set, I expected to be underwhelmed. Fairly soon into the book however, I was pleasantly shocked to realize that I had stumbled upon a writer of extraordinary talent, who utterly engrossed and captivated me. To sum up my feelings: If you are a reader who simply wants to be transported away and spend several hours in a different place and time, rooting for characters born of an imaginative mind, buy this book. And, if you are a writer looking to be goaded and inspired by the meticulous research, hard work and craftsmanship of a literary compatriot, buy the book, but do also read the interviews and her blog.
There are several good reviews of Freedom Dues online, including from Kirkus Reviews. Rather than restate much of what has been written there, let me use this space to share some personal reminiscences which may explain why this book affected me the way it did.
The last time I remember an author’s words reaching out from the early chapters of a book and pulling me under the covers so comprehensively was over twenty years ago. Getting ready to board an Amtrak train at Union Station, Washington DC, realizing to my horror I had no reading material (no Internet onboard those days!), rushing to a bookstore and picking up a book by an author I had never heard of, again intrigued by the Indian name. While that book has a different sensibility, and is set in a different time and place, Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things, exhibited one usually elusive literary quality which Indra Zuno has in spades – the ability to seamlessly blend atmosphere and storyline. What I mean by this is a little hard to express. There are authors that can draw you into the ‘atmosphere’ their works are set in. There are authors that can engross you with a storyline. Few can blend both; Indra Zuno does it effortlessly. The two are not disjointed. There is no resort to: …well here are a few introductory paragraphs to set up the atmosphere…here’s some plot.., time for some more atmosphere,… You never feel you are sitting in a cart yoked to one ox and one horse who take turns pulling you forward. It is utterly seamless. How she achieves this I cannot say, but one suspects the immersive research into her subject material, as described in her blog, probably meant she was effectively living in that world when she wrote the story.
The author also exhibits excellent craftsmanship; which I have to assume is the blending of her natural talent with hard work. I used the word effortlessly in the above paragraph, but of course most great art involves a lot of effort to make it seem effortless, and Indra Zuno has put in that work. In my mid teens I remember reading Keat’s Endymion. I probably did not follow much back then, and was likely simply being pretentious and trying to impress some girl or the other! However, I am glad I read it, as one footnote has always stuck in my mind. Keats did not start out writing “A thing of beauty is a joy forever…”. Rather he first wrote “A thing of beauty is a constant joy…”. After a few days of agonizing, he finally “got it” and changed the words. To me that epitomizes artistic craftsmanship. You might say “well of course”; but I for one often see poor or lazy craftsmanship even in the works of heralded authors. Whereas Freedom Dues has been carefully constructed by a very skilled craftsman. I recall reading in her blog or in an interview that she reduced a 170,000 word novel to 100,000 words, something that did not sit well with me as I’d have loved to have more of this book to read! But that again requires craftsmanship (and very good editors!). I recall a wise friend cum sound engineer advising me while mixing a song to remove the last 90 seconds. “Leave them wanting more” he said. Indra Zuno definitely left me wanting more!
Turning to the characters, especially the primary protagonists, Blair and Mallie, they are well developed and feel just right. Again, something one expects in any work that is published, but in my experience simply does not happen often enough. Rather than give you examples let me tell you how Indra Zuno’s skill in character development affected me. I am now a single man who has never had children, and having crossed over into the ‘mature’ side of fifty, children do not figure in my plans. Yet, when lost in Indra Zuno’s world and following the early travails of Mallie, there were absolutely moments when if a genie had popped up and said “Do you want to adopt Mallie”. I’d have willingly answered, “Yes give me that wee waif; I will protect her”! This is in spite of the fact that Mallie is in her own way quite hardboiled and wise beyond her years. The ability to create such a character with words is beyond craftsmanship, that is Indra Zuno’s natural talent.
And, the words just flow. When the daughter of another indentured servant chooses to leave her mother and live her life in freedom, the orphan Mallie’s feelings are expressed as: “While Polly consoled Margaret, Mallie tried to understand why Rhoda would leave. If she had a mother who loved her half as much as Margaret loved her daughter, she would be willing to spend her life in hell to be with her.” How can one’s heart not be wrenched by these words? Or, when Blair leaves after first making love to Mallie: “Perched on the window, she watched him go, her heart swelling. He looked back, a drunken and satisfied smile on his lips, and she shooed him away with a wave of her hand.” “drunken smile”…“shooed him away”… such turns of phrases are found often in the book, and are a testament to Indra Zuno’s innate talents.
Another delight of this book are the literary and historic allusions which Indra Zuno tosses around carelessly; and which, if you can wrench yourself from the book, to go use Google, may lead you to new discoveries. Her book got me to, after a long time, revisit the extermination of the Canaanites by the Israelis in the Old Testament. It got me to pick up my guitar, and attempt to set the words of an old Irish folk song (Love will find out the way) to my own music. And motivated me to educate myself on the how homosexuality was viewed as natural among traditional Native American cultures. Great books are not entertainment/pass-the-time dead ends, they are doors to new vistas, and Freedom Dues delivers.
There is little to criticize in this book, but I will share a few observations. The author occasionally segues into sub-plots which do not advance the storyline or develop the primary protagonists by giving us insight into their characters. They do give us insight into the social mores of that time, and perhaps they are included for that reason. However, if one had to cut the number of words I’d rather these be cut rather than those dealing with the primary characters. Then, there are, for my taste, too many ‘beatings’ and rapes in this book. It was probably necessary to include these, to paint an accurate picture of the way indentured servants were treated, and mercifully, the author does not dwell for long on each such episode. However, I would have preferred fewer such scenes, at least Mallie could have been spared! These points are minor, about the only major criticism I have, is that this is not really one book. It’s really a trilogy: Mallie’s Story, Blair’s Story and Mallie and Blair. The author makes this one book by deftly, and at appropriate points, switching between Mallie’s Story and Blair’s story. However, it does mean that the final part of the book after Mallie and Blair meet moves more rapidly than the rest and feels a tad bit rushed. Of course, this could simply be me wanting more of the book to read! And I do understand that it would be easier for a first-time author to get one book published, rather than a trilogy.
Switching gears, I noticed that, notwithstanding her Indian first name, the author was actually born in Guadalajara, Mexico and was a Spanish language television and film actress before turning to writing. It raised an interesting question for me. I remember reading, many decades ago, about how a novelist’s first book is usually written from experiences in their past, if not being outright semi-autobiographical. And, that only after that is ‘out of the way’, can a novelist mature enough to write about a distant place and invent characters who did not play a large role in their lives. Yet, Indra Zuno, based on the bios of her available on the Internet, appears to have skipped that first step. One only wonders if that is indeed true or perhaps she did channel her own experiences, but camouflaged them very well. A question for whoever gets to write her literary biography in the coming decades to explore!
One reviewer or fan commented that a movie based on this book must surely be forthcoming. I realize we live in a world where that is considered success, and so certainly hope for the author’s sake, that that happy eventuality materializes. However, it does fill me with some disquiet to imagine this lovely tapestry being reduced to the inevitable cartoon. If this book needs to be converted into audiovisual entertainment to reach a broader audience, it should be in the form of a Ken Burns Civil War type miniseries, not a two-hour film! My disquiet was further heightened as, by coincidence, while reading Freedom Dues, I also happened to read Bruce Bawer’s article on Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind, addressing the recent brouhaha over that film. It has been too long since I saw that film, and do not even recollect if I read the book. However, I did find his description of Mitchell, the book, and the disconnect with the way film ended up, as something anyone writing/directing a screen play for Freedom Dues should internalize, and ensure they avoid. After all, Indra Zuno may be the Margaret Mitchell of our times…
So, should you buy this book? Without question YES! I have no idea what you will get out of it. I have long believed that all works of art are a 50:50 transaction between the artist and the audience, or as I once wrote, “what I bring with me into the Louvre is as important as what I will find in there”. So, you might find something entirely different from what I found. But there is so much to this book, and author, that I believe virtually every reader will find something to enjoy, and finish the book satisfied.
Which brings me to one final point. The author stated in an interview that her next book is going to on Baron von Steuben. After reading up on von Steuben on Wikipedia, I do have one cause for concern. I suspect that if she uses the same modus operandi she used for Freedom Dues, Indra Zuno will spend a lot of time reading a hundred books on von Stuebel and the Revolutionary War, will trapieze off to Germany and the Revolutionary battlefields to soak up the atmosphere and will probably become an expert on the military drills and training von Steuben introduced. That will likely result in a great book, but my concern is that we might have to wait another seven years (the time she spent on Freedom Dues) for the result. Instead, I suspect I speak for many of her fans in saying we’ll forgive her some historical and atmospheric inaccuracies, but that we’d like to get our hands on her next book within the next year!!!
(reviewed 5 days after purchase)