book review, historical fiction

Review: A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett

A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett is a fast-paced story spanning 18th century Scotland, London, and Virginia. We follow Mack McAsh and Lizzie Hallim, both strong-willed, independent people from differing socioeconomic classes. Mack has been born to the harsh life of coal mining; young men often yolked to a mine and landlord for life in something akin to slavery (*more on that later.) Lizzie, on the other hand, is a would-be heiress who must marry rich in order to save her heavily mortgaged family estate of High Glen.

Mack is a working class hero; he has a strong sense of justice, even at the expense of his own safety and well-being. Mack yearns from freedom for those of his class, and wishes to break the strict socioeconomic classes in favor of equality. Mack is likable because of his sense of always doing what is right–to a fault, which kind of got annoying at some points (like when he would suddenly show up in a scene to rescue Lizzie. Bit of a tired trope.) As themes go, I did like the examination of class politics.

Lizzie gave me way more mixed feelings. Perhaps I am more critical of a female character written by a male more than I would be if a woman had written her. Follett’s Lizzie fit the trope of the high-strung, strong-willed, independent, spoiled high society girl who constantly challenges those around her. At times, Lizzie acted very out of character for a woman of the 18th century (telling off her lorded father in law,) while at other times she acted very much a woman of her time. For example, Lizzie is quick to challenge men and social conventions (not riding side-saddle) within her own class system, however, while she offers superficial help to those in need (helping Mack or throwing a party for the slaves), she never seems to fully examine the big picture plight of  slavery. Lizzie later comes to be the mistress of a large plantation in Virginia, and although she wishes to feed her slaves better and treat them gently, her outspoken nature seems to fall short. She never fully challenges the institution, even if just by internal thought. I know a woman at this time couldn’t do much to change society at large, but there wasn’t even any dialogue or thought process of–this is wrong, I cannot be a mistress of a slave-owning plantation.

And here is where I come to the issue of slavery, in relation to what this whole book is about. The title itself, A Place Called Freedom, and the overarching theme was a bit problematic for me. While I found the story engaging and fast-paced, I continually struggled with the fact that this book is about 18th century white people yearning for freedom, while it does not deep dive into the issues of slavery, or really have any African slaves as prominent characters.  Let me first say that I understand the historical context here. Even colonists wishing independence from the British would say they no longer wanted to be “slaves” to the Empire, while at the same time some in fact actually owned slaves. During the 18th century (and before), indentured servitude was a system in which a person would either be shipped to the Americas for being a convict and would have to serve for X amount of years before gaining freedom, or the person entered into X amount of years of indentured servitude in exchange for passage to America. During this time, white people of the lowest socioeconomic class were viewed harshly and certainly very much beneath the higher classes–that is true. However, these people were still white and therefore viewed by most as humans, whereas African slaves were not. There is mention in this book from some of the higher class characters that the coal miner Scots (i.e. low socioeconomic class) don’t feel and think the same way they do. I’m sure this notion was true then, but I still believe Africans would have been viewed as even less. Here is where I struggle: Mack, as man of low socioeconomic status, exposes his landlord for basically enslaving them to work the mines. What propels Mack forward is his quest for justice and freedom. He ends up in Virginia as a “slave,” but really as an indentured servant. He and the other servants mix in the fields with the African slaves. Mack does give pause to slavery, and Follett even allows Mack to think that he is equal to them. What I’m trying to say is that even though indentured servants were treated harshly and lived brutal lives, they had the possibility and eventual hope of earning their freedom. Slaves, on the other hand, never had that hope of eventual freedom (unless they took matters into their own hands and ran away.)

Does a story about 18th century indentured servitude negate the horrors of slavery–no, but if you’re going to write a story about an unrelenting desire for freedom, why not address the actual institution in which there was no true freedom?

All that being said, I did find the story engaging and I wanted to keep reading (despite my misgivings and discomfort of the themes and characters.) There were big time lapses and abrupt scene changes, as well as an abrupt end. Some of the characters fell too much into the historical romance tropes; especially Lizzie…maybe Ken Follett just isn’t that great with writing female characters? This is the first book I’ve read by him. I could have done without the tropes, as well as some of the tired descriptions (ie.”she cried her heart out.”)

Grade: B-


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