AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. jolts you back to the chaotic weeks after the Civil War, a time when families of slaves were freed but not necessarily together. Some took to the papers, buying classified ads in hopes of reuniting their families.
LEONARD PITTS JR.: (Reading) I am looking for Tilda, my wife. When I knew her, we were in bondage to Louisa Prentiss, near Buford, in the state of Mississippi.
CORNISH: This is Leonard Pitts reading from a fictional ad placed by the main character of the book, a freed slave named Sam. The novel is called "Freeman," and in it, Sam leaves Philadelphia to travel throughout the South, searching for Tilda, the love of his life. Pitts took inspiration from real classified ads like these.
JR.: (Reading) During the year 1843, Donald Hughes carried away from Little Rock as his slaves our daughter Betsy and our son Thomas Jr...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Information wanted of Hessy Carter, who was sold from Vicksburg in the year 1852. She was carried to Atlanta, and she was last heard of in the sales pen of Robert Clarke.
JR.: (Reading) We will give $100 each for them to any person who will assist them to get to Nashville or to get to us any word of their whereabouts if they are alive.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Any information of her whereabouts will be thankfully received and rewarded by her mother, Lucy Pickens, Nashville.
CORNISH: In the novel, these true stories from just after the Civil War mingle with Leonard Pitts' fictional tale.
JR.: To me, it's such a fascinating and little known fact that all of these African-American newly freed slaves went to such great lengths to reconstitute their marriages and reconstitute their families. And nobody really knows about this. Nobody really talks about this. But you've got - 20 years after the war - people placing ads and walking across counties and states. And I just liked the idea of using real ads to emphasize that this, you know, this was a real story. These were real people who were looking for their loved ones.
CORNISH: And there are so many different little stories that Sam encounters as he travels...
CORNISH: ...in the South: Slaves who are trying to find their families, and their masters won't give them their loved ones back...
CORNISH: ...or slaves that are killed on the way out.
CORNISH: What did you want to explore with these different anecdotes?
JR.: I just like the idea of sort of giving the full dimension of it. Like there's a lady in the book who was looking for her daughter, and there's something slightly demented about this poor lady because she's looking for her baby that she hasn't seen in 20 years, and she can't seemed to kind of get it through her head that her baby is no longer a baby. Her baby is a grown woman. And that's an actual, you know, that actually happened. And I find that just very painful and very poignant in terms of what it says about what slavery did to this poor woman. So, you know, all these dimensions of things that were happening.
We tend to have this image of the end of the Civil War as being the slaves said, OK, we're free now, and hallelujah and jubilee and threw their hoes down and went on to begin, you know, building whatever freedom was going to be. It was a lot more difficult, painful and complex than that.
CORNISH: Even within the characters themselves, one of the characters, Tilda, the act of walking away from her master is difficult.
JR.: Yeah. Yeah. That's another thing. There were a lot of slaves who, either because of fear - which is what it was in Tilda's case - or because of devotion, freedom had to be a decision for a lot of slaves. Freedom was not just this automatic thing that came because somebody came and read a notice that said you all are free now. That's the legal aspect of it. But in terms of the emotional aspect of it, if I've been owned all of my life and I'm 20, 30, 40 years old, I have to define for myself intellectually and emotionally what freedom means and what I can now do.
CORNISH: Leonard, is there a character in the book that you identified with or that it's kind of like taken from your family?
JR.: I don't know that there's one who I'd say is exactly like me, but Sam has some of my traits. He's this man who, you know, he was owned, along with his wife, by a woman who had rather progressive ideas for those times, who allowed the slaves to read, for instance. And he is a man who has sort of taken refuge in books and uses words as a shield. And I do know that if I get - if I'm in an argument with somebody who's white and I feel like they're treating me as less, then the verbiage - the level of the verbiage will raise, and I'll start using five- and seven-syllable words.
CORNISH: Which is what Sam does in the book.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JR.: Which is what Sam does. I'll start using words that I'm pretty sure they don't know.
CORNISH: Which doesn't always help him.
JR.: Yeah. And I wanted to make that point. In that, I'm sort of talking to myself as well. It's like, you know, that's - it's a tick. But the fact of the matter is if people are determined to treat you in that way, you know, you're using, you know, language isn't really going to - it might make you feel good, you know, temporarily, but what else is it really going to accomplish?
CORNISH: And we've talked very seriously about the period, but this is, at the heart, a romance.
CORNISH: And do you - you look like a very serious man. But you...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CORNISH: ...clearly have a romantic streak.
JR.: Yeah. From when I was - from very young, all my favorite songs were love songs. And I'm just drawn to this idea of, you know, particularly in the current environment where we see so much, we talk so much about the African-American family and African-American men and women in terms of dysfunction and in terms of distance and separation. I am just absolutely enthralled by this idea that there was a time when we as African-Americans walked across mountains and meadows to be back together, with no guarantee that I'm even going to find you on the other side of that mountain, and yet going to walk that mountain. To me, that is a very, very powerful thing, and that's, you know, that's one of the driving forces that made me want to write this book.
CORNISH: Leonard Pitts, thank you so much for talking with us.
JR.: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: Writer Leonard Pitts Jr., you can read his syndicated column for The Miami Herald and in many other papers. His new novel is called "Freeman."