Monday, December 10, 2018

Undoing complicity: Up from Freedom by Wayne Grady, a saga of antebellum America

Drawing on research into his mixed-race family history, which he unexpectedly discovered as an adult, Grady evokes the complicated psychological terrain of antebellum America. He shows how simply living in this time and place forces everyone into a culture built around slavery’s existence, and how denying people agency causes harm regardless of intentions. Opening in 1848, the story follows farmer Virgil Moody as he tries to right a dreadful wrong and awakens to the mindset that prompted his original choice.

Born the son of a Georgia plantation owner, Moody had fled westward with a young enslaved woman, Annie, to save her from a cruel overseer. Along with the child Annie was carrying, they settled first in New Orleans and then along the Rio Brazos in Texas, where slavery had expanded following the recent war with Mexico. Moody abhors slavery, thinking of Annie and her son Lucas as his family, and is shocked to realize they feel differently. When Lucas falls in love with a young woman owned by a neighbor, devastating events occur, spurring Moody across the South and Midwest in search of Lucas.

Across these diverse landscapes and waterways, he encounters many well-realized characters, like a Quaker widow named Rachel and a sympathetic German-born store owner, Solomon Kästchen, who works with the Underground Railroad. “Indiana is, generally speaking, antislavery, but it is also antislave,” Kästchen tells him, succinctly illustrating people’s complicity in a system they are supposedly against.

Along the way, Moody grows increasingly fond of Tamsey Lewis, a freedwoman he meets along with her family. Their story, both heartrending and inspirational, culminates in a riveting courtroom scene. This is a timely novel about the deep roots of America’s racial divide, strong in the eloquent truth expressed in individual sentences and in its overall storytelling power.

Up from Freedom was published by Random House Canada in August 2018 (it's also sold in the US). I first reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy I'd requested. It's highly recommended for readers of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.  Read more about the author in an interview conducted by the CBC for his first novel, Emancipation Day, which is based on his father's story.


  1. Wonderful review, Sarah. I thought UP FROM FREEDOM both engaging and enlightening. A great novel!

  2. Thanks, Sandra! Glad you agree. I'm looking forward to reading Emancipation Day.