Updated: Oct 3, 2022
“Libertas. It sounds like prayin’. Made me love you. But,” she said, “what is it, really?” Horace said, “Freedom means nobody owns you. You own you. You even own time.”
Libertas is a love story rising from the despair of slavery. Fredericka is the daughter of a White plantation owner and his Black house slave. Horace is a literate slave-companion to the son of a New York hotel baron.
This first book in the Pocket Full of Seeds Trilogy follows their flight for freedom through nineteenth-century America, a time when runaway slaves were hunted, steamships sailed around the Horn to San Francisco, horse-tugged boats navigated the Erie Canal, a midnight tsunami struck Buffalo, Mormons sought a new Zion, and wagon trains lumbered across a continent littered with unmarked graves. Most of all, this is a story driven by an unquenchable thirst for libertas. The ultimate struggle for freedom.
To simply read this description of this book does not do it justice. There is so much more here that it is hard to relay all this literary masterpiece has to offer. And that is simply what this novel is – historical fiction at at stellar level, and a literary masterpiece of the highest calibre. In truth, this book deserves a vast audience, and the need for fans to absorb the underlying theme of the novel – that of love, and hope, and the inherit right for every man to taste freedom despite the color of his or her skin. But, as we all know, history shows us the raw and visceral times of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, and Ms Pfeiffer gives us a story unyielding from the stark truths of such times.
These words soak into you like raw bitter molasses over biscuits - slow, saturating, sticking to your inside and not letting go from the very first line to the very last... and now, in eager anticipation for the next in the series.
This journey of two people – Horace and Fredericka – is one which clenches around your heart and I must say, not a chapter went by where I did not sob, sometimes uncontrollably. But that being said, the brilliance of the author to capture such emotion in her prose is not to be taken as a sappy novel that is only trying to engender tears... this reaches the very core of humanity, itself. As you read, you are Horace and Fredericka.
The moment Fredericka is transferred from being a “somewhat carefree” young Mulatto girl, the daughter of the White plantation owner and his house slave, to replacing her mother in the “role” is heartbreaking, but depicts the reality of life for young Black women squashed under the power of heartless Masters who cared nothing for the morality of such deeds, thinking their victims were merely chattel for them to do with as they pleased. Yet, while we understand the situation, Ms Pfeiffer is very careful in the way she presents this horrendous life, even as she skilfully portrays Frederick Grafton, the plantation owner, as the ultimate selfish abuser. And not only him, but we come to learn about Frederick’s wife, Henrietta, a true Southern Belle, who looks the other way, tolerating her husband’s antics as a way to maintain her self-righteous stance over the slaves in her care. Yet, Henrietta begins to despise Fredricka as she comes to understand her husband’s “love” for the girl goes much further than she ever imagined. As revenge, she sells Fredericka’s mother at the auction block, an act which rips Fredericka to the bone.
Horace’s story begins quite different. He is sort of a ‘free man’, at least that is what he is led to believe, as he lives in New York, a state where slavery is outlawed, and is the companion to the son of a wealthy hotel owner. He and Jonathan grew up together, like brothers, and Horace is given all the advantages of his White brother in education, quality of life, and a home. All is quite fine in this supposed security, until Jonathan goes away to college and Horace is left under the care of Jonathan’s father. The undercurrent of New York is not what it seems, as many look the other way while free Black men are rounded up and taken back to the South to plantations. During one of the visits to New York by Frederick Grafton, he makes a wager with Jonathan’s father, taunting him with a game of chance, and daring him to put up Horace as a bet. In one throw of the cards, Horace’s life is changed forever.
“...each card falling to the table in a slap of humiliation, each an indictment against dignity.”
But this fate brings Horace into Fredericka’s life. They are forever changed upon one act of saving, the day Horace is brought to the plantation... and this one act of saving begins the journey for both of them on the quest for true freedom.
“Between crisis and catastrophe there occurs an ephemeral moment when time slows and the fabric of heaven splits open. In that dimension, they alone existed, beyond fear and threat, their breath blending into one unspoken pledge.”
They begin their escape to a new life, a journey along the Underground Railroad, paid for by the outstretching hand of Jonathan, Horace’s “White” brother, who is horrified to learn of his father’s betrayal. Horace and Fredericka run... and the hunters come for them – Frederick Grafton, bent on bringing them both back and teaching them a lesson, and his overseer who is quite adept with the whip.
What none of them expected was for nature to step in and turn all of their lives upside down in one night. I was simply astounded at the way Ms Pfeiffer brought to life the rare occurrence of the seiche, an inland tsunami off Lake Erie which devastated Buffalo, New York. And this is not the only time she wove nature into the passages as beautifully as Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, but this is one of the most profound chapters I have read in recent years. I have to share a slice:
“Even hardship must obey the laws of nature and bend to the will of time. Just as receding tides defy their ebb and advance again by the tug of the moon, upon the last drop of human endurance, there is a refilling that comes with the tug of opportunity. But in the seconds before that cup is filled, in that solitary space, humans either flounder or rally. It is so effortless to fold into emptiness, to collapse into despair. Giving up takes no more effort than a final breath, a last embrace of disappointment, a bitter acquiesance to life’s betrayals. Having surrendered, the eyes close, the heart succumbs, the tide has missed the moon, and one has missed it all.”
Horace and Fredericka are baptized by fire and water throughout this book, and dignity and determination remain. Hope gleams before them and shows the depth a person will go to, pushed to the edge over and over again, to find happiness and a place in the world. Every detail, every event, is fleshed out, from the characters to the scenes, in incredible visual artistry – life on the plantation, the escape, the betrayals, the seiche, the beatings, the hopelessness, the dust gathering in your mind as you walk behind the wagon train on the Oregon trail, the smile on an Indian’s lips, the smell of heat and hatred, the rattle of a rattlesnake, the grip of grief, and the rank odour of disease and death on an ocean voyage around Cape Horn, the flap of a heron’s wings – and the tiny seeds Fredericka gathers along the journey, those seeds of hope she sees blooming in her mind’s eye. And the unexpected turn of events that appear on the horizon, the opportunities to show compassion, trust, and forgiveness... ones I did not expect at all and the way Ms Pfeiffer connects all things in the end was nothing short of genius... AND leaving us in breathless expectation of the continuing saga of the characters in the story. Bravo, Ms Pfeiffer, bravo!
Lastly, I must remark on the humility Ms Pfeiffer shows and acknowledges in her closing remarks about her concerns of being a white woman telling the story of black slaves. It reminds me of reading “The Memoirs of a Geisha” and coming to the realization that that book was written by a man only after reading the author notes. I would have never known if he had not said, which shows the incredible skill of such a writer. Ms Pfeiffer did the same with this book... as she internalizes every detail, breathing Fredericka’s life and seeing with her eyes in a way that shows, at the core, we are all human and we all bleed the same color.
“If only men were turned inside out, and their only color was the color of blood."
This book is awarded five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award by The Historical Fiction Company.
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