Sunday, November 5, 2023

The Many Faces of Freedom: Guest Post by Eliot Pattison

In creating a series set in the years leading to the American Revolution, I inevitably wove themes of freedom into my plotlines. After seven novels set in the time period, however, I am less likely to offer a quick definition of freedom than when I started. From the broad view it is the paramount theme and driver behind most plots set in this era, but I have become well acquainted with the challenges of authentically translating the notion of freedom into the words and actions of a diverse range of characters. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but freedom is in the beholder’s heart. It can be a worm gnawing at a character’s soul. It can be a near impossible destination in a desperate, tormented journey. It can manifest itself in a guilty conscience, a philosophical discourse, an angry harangue, a forlorn flight, or a prayer-like whisper. To some writers it might be a versatile tool. But for the novelist probing the remarkable years before the Revolution, capturing freedom is more like a duty, a challenge that if not met can render an entire novel ineffective. 

Freedom is a many faceted jewel. It is straightforward and easily explained if your characters are all breaking out of a prison as in Paul Brickhill’s classic The Great Escape. It is more difficult to articulate the goal for the protagonist seeking to flee a gilded cage as in Bronte’s Jane Eyre, whose flight is from her particular niche in society. It is the seemingly unattainable heaven as viewed from the hell of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. It is the carefree open river in Huckleberry Finn. It is the ability to fend off the pressures of a conforming society to honor a religion in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen

Haunting tales have been crafted around the quest for a hidden refuge of freedom from an overbearing state, as in Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984. These novels offer a unitary vision of freedom, narrowed as it may be by soul-crushing dystopias. Not so with authentic treatments of early America. 

One of the reasons I am drawn to the 18th century is the richness of its cultures, characters, and events. Society was not nearly as homogenous as history texts would have us believe. Native Americans, Scottish rebels transported into servitude, hardscrabble farmers, Puritan clergy, slaves, persecuted Quakers, and wealthy merchants were living side by side though in sharply different circumstances. Just within Massachusetts, a primary venue of my new novel, the residents of Marblehead were different from those of Boston, and the thousands of troops occupying Boston —one for every four colonists-- were altogether different from either community. 

An apt analogy for the challenges of presenting all these identities is the famed Liberty Tree, a rallying point in 1770 Boston. The roots and trunk reflect freedom in its broadest liberating sense, but the tree had many limbs and branches, representing myriad pathways and contexts for freedom. My protagonist wants to eliminate the interference of the government from his life, including its bar to marriage, which is prohibited for indentured servants. The Sons of Liberty want the yoke of a remote, intolerant king thrown off but individually—as reflected in characters as diverse as Crispus Attucks and John Hancock-- have sharply different ideas of how to obtain that freedom. Petitioning the king is a far cry from wielding a club against oppressors encamped on Boston Common, but both are calls for freedom. 

Another limb of this figurative Liberty Tree is occupied by slaves, themselves reflecting an array of aspirations. Slaves who have escaped from brutal servitude on a Barbados sugar plantation have a more visceral perspective than those serving as clerks in Boston merchant houses. Those who have recently lost their chains begin to understand not just the complexities, but also the responsibilities, of freedom. “No man can give me my freedom,” declares a fugitive slave in my new novel, “I have to earn it.” Then there are the Native Americans, many of whom get confused with all the talk of freedom since freedom is in their DNA, an inalienable instinct of those bred in the wilds. The branches of the Liberty Tree may all sway in the same wind, but they can be dramatically different. Not to recognize those differences in an historical mystery would undermine its authenticity. 

The cause that drove the American Revolution was primarily political freedom, which itself reflected the birthing of the new American identity. The fierce self-reliance of the frontier settlers melded with the more philosophical perspectives of rebels versed in the Greek and Roman classics. Ultimately, they found one voice, declaring in a famed 1776 document that fundamental freedoms did not come from government and therefore the government had no authority to restrict them. That political solution didn’t satisfy everyone’s criteria, but it did help frame vital questions that shape characters then and now: how do you value freedom? Do you seek freedom from something or freedom to do something? A character’s outlook can also be a function of the particular repression they or loved ones have suffered, and the need to protect another’s freedom. Such variations in perspectives can affect character arcs, dialogue, and even the choice of adjectives. 

Freedom is a powerful motive for human conduct, fictional or otherwise, and understanding a character’s particular engagement in its complex landscape can become the key to solving a mystery. The unexplained death of a naval officer may look very different when it is discovered that he impressed local fishermen to serve as forced labor on a warship. The puzzling death of a wealthy merchant may take on a new meaning when it is discovered that he has been smuggling arms for the Sons of Liberty. 

The faces of freedom can thus be proud, vengeful, fearful, sternly defiant, or even fixed in feigned innocence, all of which are reflected in my novels. It can even, for one uniquely aware of secret, deadly plots by the king’s spies, be one of cunning subterfuge—as evidenced by my protagonist. This rich array of people and perspectives provides fertile ground for mysteries, and for deeper appreciation of the complex factors that created the American identity. 

Understanding the diverse faces of freedom through the medium of a mystery thus becomes a means for assimilating history. Mysteries are a potent vehicle for historical fiction, for they are so effective in drawing the reader into the thoughts, motives, and actions of their characters. Historical novels don’t chart history, they transport us inside it, so we know how history feels. These faces thus become familiar, more human, giving us an intimate grasp of what came before making it not simply the past, but our past. 


Eliot Pattison’s
just-released novel Freedom’s Ghost, is seventh in his acclaimed Bone Rattler series, which explores the tumultuous years leading to the American Revolution.

Described as "a writer of faraway mysteries," Eliot Pattison's travel and interests span a million miles of global trekking, visiting every continent but Antarctica. An international lawyer by training, he received “The Art of Freedom” award from the Tibet House for bringing his social and cultural concerns to his fiction, published on three continents. He is the author of seventeen mystery novels, including the internationally acclaimed Edgar award-winning Inspector Shan Series, set in China and Tibet and the Bone Rattler Series, set in Colonial America. His books have been translated into over twenty languages.  
A former resident of Boston and Washington, Pattison resides on an 18th century farm in Pennsylvania with his wife, three children, and an ever-expanding menagerie of animals.

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