An escaped slave joins a minstrel show in Philadelphia, providing the framework for a beautiful fictional examination of a society fated to resolve its differences through conflict. Told from various viewpoints, Tom Piazza has created a portrait both painful and poignant of a world and its citizens caught in the throes of the ultimate moral dilemma.— Bill
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.
About the Author
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.
“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
“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.”
“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
“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
“A page-turning novel about real times that are stranger than fiction.”
— New York Post
“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
“Piazza’s novel vividly depicts a cultural phenomenon through Henry’s harrowing journey.”
— Publishers Weekly
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
“A thoughtful examination of the intertwining of race and culture—as well as a truly scary portrait of a genuine psychopath.”
— Kirkus Reviews