Racism, family, and hope for future generations guide A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton as the novel follows one family starting in 1944 through 2011. We are introduced to Evelyn and her younger sister, Ruby, two young women navigating their desires and those of their parents. The sisters are inseparable, and also a bit of an odd couple. They are fiercely loyal to one another, but it comes at a cost to Evelyn as friendships fall away due to her sister’s needs and combative personality.
The narrative then jumps to 1985 and focuses on Evelyn’s daughter, Jackie. In this section, Jackie is in her mid-twenties. She has a baby and works in her parents’ daycare. Her husband, Terry, is an addict trying to reconnect with her and their son while in recovery.
Fast forward another generation, and we see T.C., the son of Jackie and Terry being discharged from prison on a drug charge, his first offense. It’s now 2010 and T.C. has a baby on the way. Evelyn, now referred to as Maw Maw, is still alive; though, her health is in decline.
A Kind of Freedom is imbued with sadness. We see the expectations of Evelyn’s father, the first black doctor in Louisiana, crumble as he disapproves of the match Evelyn makes with a man named, Renard. Renard was orphaned as a boy and taken in by another family. He’s poor and considered low-class by Evelyn’s parents. But, does one follow their heart or familial obligations? What are the consequences in that situation?
Another layer of sadness is the racism the characters experience. Whether it’s direct like police harassing and pressuring bribes out of Renard in the 1940’s, to white soldiers brutalize their black comrades during World War II, the workplace racism Terry experiences in the 1980’s along with the “war on drugs,” to the structural racism which leaves parts of a post-Katrina New Orleans to fall into decay while the white part is quickly rebuilt. Moreover, we see T.C.’s struggles through poverty and how the drug-trade fills the void.
So, where is the hope? Maybe the hope is in T.C.’s baby. If you’re an optimist, you’ll see a better future for that little boy. But, all parents want better for their children and we witness the hopes of the preceding generation fall apart to an extant.
What I find interesting are the characters who are slightly off stage, namely Ruby, who is Evelyn’s sister, and Sybil, who is Jackie’s sister. We don’t really hear much about Ruby’s kids and so don’t know how if their lives have been touched with the same tragedy as Evelyn’s daughter and grandson. Also, Sybil, is a lawyer and has no partner or children. She’s the golden child of the family, but again, one wonders about the consequences? We see glimpses of her life, but it’s hard to tell what she’s feeling. Sybil works more as a foil to Jackie, highlighting what Jackie sees as her own shortcomings.
In terms of writing, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, does a tremendous job. I felt present in the characters’ lives. The interplay between Evelyn and Ruby was great and she makes the different eras of New Orleans come alive.
What I’m unsure of is the narrative structure. The non-linear arc gives the reader more of a mosaic. We get more information than the characters in the past have, so it makes reading those parts all the more sad. Evelyn’s and Renard’s joy is bitter for the reader as we know the pain they’ll experience in the future. If the novel were revised in a linear fashion though, I don’t think it would work. Is there enough plot in those sections? Would the transitions feel off? Does plot change when a novel is told non-linearly?
A Kind of Freedom will stay with me. It’s a tough book to read. It challenges the reader to view racism in America like The Underground Railroad did, but with a very contemporary story.