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23 april 2023

Freewater, Amina Luqman-Dawson's ambitious historical-adventure novel set in and around a colony of people who have escaped from slavery, is a worthy winner of the 2023 Newbery Medal.

Freewater is told from ten different perspectives, though some are more salient than others. The novel involves escape from slavery, subversive resistance to slavery, the traditions of an independent free culture, and the coming-of-age of characters who strive for different and interrelated kinds of empowerment.

This sounds like a heady mix of narrative threads. But Freewater is 400 pages long and Luqman-Dawson works patiently to establish and differentiate her many characters. The novel is well-told and consistently suspenseful.

Freewater entails quite a bit of world-building. Luqman-Dawson imagines an alternative hypothetical culture for an African-American community deep in a swamp, adjacent to but vigilantly isolated from the slave plantations that ring the wilderness. Luqman-Dawson introduces her story as "a tale of what might have been" (v). But the existence of free communities in the American South, in marginal areas impenetrable to white patrols, is a historical fact. The most famous of these communities was in the Great Dismal Swamp. Luqman-Dawson reveals in an afterword that she was inspired by research on that community to imagine how they might have led their lives. Swamp "maroons" created viable, decades-long settlements. They must have had names, customs, and a coherent culture, however few traces they left in material or linguistic records. Like Margaret Walker in her great novel Jubilee, Luqman-Dawson sets about giving these people names and identities.

Freewater is also an escape-from-slavery story. Homer and his sister Ada flee from a plantation, but they have to leave their mother behind, as well as a girl named Anna, whom Homer has long been fond of. Those presences behind them, plus guilt over becoming free without them, continue to draw their thoughts back. But Homer and Ada are also enchanted by the community that welcomes them: by the free spirit Sanzi, the ardent Billy, stigmatized by his stammer, the mysterious and superhero-like Suleman, and a large cast of others.

The people of Freewater are set against the slaveowners outside their swamp, and we sense that they will eventually come into open conflict with them, and they do. But Freewater is not entirely the story of this conflict. Along the way, Luqman-Dawson imagines an entire world within the swamp, a world where black people are on the alert for white encroachers, but not constantly thinking about white people. Internal rivalries, jealousies, bonds of mutual support, and budding romances keep the people of Freewater as socially enmeshed in tensions as the people of any long-standing community would be. The Freewater residents have a heightened adaptation to their environment and a somewhat legendary capacity for survival. But they are also imagined as real people with real contradictory emotions.

Luqman-Dawson also gives us access to two of the white people back on the plantation. One is an overseer, your basic stock villain. The other is Nora, one of the slaveowner's daughters. Nora is selectively mute, though her actual disability is more what scholar Danielle Price calls "Literary Selective Mutism": less a clinical condition than a plot device. The reader gathers that Nora has been driven into silence by the trauma of her complicity in enslaving others. And once we get that idea, we know that it's only a matter of time before Nora will find her voice in the process of becoming an ally to those who resist enslavement. Nora's role in Freewater is melodramatic, but there's so much else going on that it doesn't seem a crucial flaw.

Luqman-Dawson, Amina. Freewater. New York: Little, Brown [Hachette], 2022. PZ 7.1 .L865Fr

Cf. also Danielle E. Price, "Sponsored Silence: Literary Selective Mutism in Children's Fiction," Children's Literature Association Quarterly 47.2 (Summer 2022): 208-224.