Bold and raw, Freedom’s Child is a terrific début novel with a highly unusual storyline. I found it utterly compelling.
Freedom Oliver used to be called Nessa Delaney. She has spent the last eighteen years living under the ‘whippersnappers’, the witness protection programme, in Painter, a small Oregon town, USA. She has a new identity, after being arrested for the murder of her ’cop’ husband, Mark Delaney, but was released two years later when the real killer was apprehended.
After the arrest Freedom put her two children up for adoption, a decision which has pricked her conscience and haunted her ever since. The two children were given new names, Mason and Rebekah, and were adopted by a religious couple, both Third-Day Adventists in Goshen, Kentucky.
Freedom now works at the Whammy Bar, a local rock pub and biker bar, and is tough talking, brash and often drunk. But she is also funny and full of courage, and is kind to her eighty year old neighbour, Mimi, who has amnesia. She lives in a ‘shitty apartment’ where she spends most of her time drinking whiskey and wondering how her life has taken the turns it has. And keeping tabs on her now grown-up children through the internet and Facebook.
Then Freedom learns that her daughter, Rebekah, has gone missing, possibly kidnapped. Freedom becomes obsessed with finding her. She gives the whippersnappers the slip and heads to Goshen on a motorbike. Her flight breaks the conditions of her protection and makes her a fugitive. I was rooting for her to locate the daughter she’d held for just over two minutes before she was handed over to her new parents.
Matthew Delaney, Mark’s brother, has recently been released from an eighteen year prison sentence following an appeal. He has made it his business to find out exactly where Freedom is and is out to get her. No longer protected by the government, her husband’s vile, welfare abusing, low-life family all want revenge on Freedom for Mark’s death, and set out to find her.
When Freedom arrives in Goshen and learns what has been going on within the Adventist congregation, it is much worse that she could ever have imagined. I had been wondering what she was going to encounter but hadn’t anticipated this turn in the narrative.
I approached Freedom’s Child as an adventure into the unknown. I expected it to be dark but it was much more sinister and chilling than that. When I read the blurb, and started to read about Freedom and the Delaneys, I knew that I didn’t know anyone like them. The Adventists were also unfamiliar and I don’t know anyone who has ridden a motorbike across the USA. This is partly what made Freedom’s Child enjoyable for me: its plot, setting and characters were so unfamiliar. At the level of the story it is extremely interesting. And woven into the story are some fascinating themes. Freedom is brash and bawdy. But I felt sympathetic towards her. Having fallen in with a bad man when she was young, low self-esteem prevented her from leaving him. His family were like bindweed round her ankles. Freedom reflects on how feeling unworthy may have affected her life choices and course. This raises the question of whether we ‘choose’ relationships and experiences in life, or whether they are coincidental, the result of ‘bad luck’ or predetermined. The book also made me think about what happens to people when they are dragged down in life, and how difficult it can be to come back up again. Freedom loses everything: her children, her peace of mind and – as she remarks – her freedom. Her life becomes one of chaos and her plan is to end her life. Yet she is a survivor and a fighter. We see this so often: people unable to return from tragedy. Yet some do. Why are some able to and some not?
Freedom’s Child has a fair contingent of unpleasant characters, most obviously the Delaney clan. I liked Peter Delaney, the only good egg in the Delaney gang. He has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. I also liked Officer Mattley, the cop who is sweet on Freedom. And her two girl pals.
Something else I found interesting was that Matthew Delaney has been tracking Freedom from prison. Freedom has been tracking her two children the whole time, and her son (Mason) has been tracking his sister after being cut off by his adoptive family. I’m not quite sure why this fascinated me but it did. Perhaps because, in this internet age, it is so easy to do.
In places I found the narrative a little hard to follow. Chapters switch between aspects of the storyline, past and present, and often provide detailed flashbacks. This made it feel a little disjointed in places. However, it only took a page or so to re-orient. It also occurred to me that this might have been intentional: to symbolise Freedom’s chaotic existence and scattered state of mind. (In which case, it worked) Regardless of the moving between plot aspects, the story had a natural energy to it, partly created by Miller’s writing, and partly due to the tension around the Matthew Delaney and daughter storylines.
I really enjoyed Miller’s unconstrained writing. The imagery she uses is striking and fresh, and often raw and visceral. Many phrases made me stop reading and want to let thoughts and impressions swirl round in my mind. For example, “… her gums will shelve black rubble, and she’ll be nothing but bone shrink-wrapped in skin.” I found Freedom’s Child an unusual book in many ways – all positive. Its rawness felt genuine and it was simultaneously depressing and uplifting. Which is exactly how I like my reads.
Thanks to the publisher, HarperCollins, and the author for my review copy via NetGalley.
Vicky Newham © 2015