Kirkus Reviews on A Free State:


A fugitive slave pursued by a vicious bounty hunter provides the fictional framework for novelist and music writer Piazza (Devil Sent the Rain, 2011, etc.) to ponder the contradictions of blackface minstrelsy.


Fleeing the bitter knowledge that the man who owns him is his father, Joseph heads north to Philadelphia, acquiring the name Henry Sims en route. He’s a brilliant banjo player and extraordinary dancer, so when James Douglass sees him performing on the street, he knows Henry is the man to revive the flagging fortunes of his minstrelsy troupe, the Virginia Harmonists. It’s illegal for a Negro to appear onstage with white performers, but light-skinned Henry audaciously suggests he can hide his race by applying burnt cork as they do. James agrees; having escaped drudgery on a Pennsylvania farm to find paradoxical freedom in “blacking up,” he feels a surprising kinship with this proud, assertive artist who doesn’t bother to disguise his opinion that he’s as good as any white man. Passing off their new member as Mexican, the Virginia Harmonists gain renewed popularity. Unfortunately, their reputation as “the best nigger show in town” attracts the attention of Tull Burton, dispatched by Joseph’s owner/father to recapture him. Several sickeningly brutal scenes have already made it clear that Tull is a dangerous sadist, and the tension is nearly unbearable as he stalks Henry. But Piazza’s elegantly written narrative also has time for James’ poetic musings on the masks all performers wear, as well as his uneasy feelings about finding joy in an act grounded in the culture of an enslaved people. The rest of the Harmonists are also fully fleshed characters, as is the troupe’s seamstress, Rose, whose final appearance quietly makes the point that women too are painfully confined in antebellum America. The closing pages offer no neat resolution for anyone, only haunting reminders of life’s uncertainties and complexities.


A thoughtful examination of the intertwining of race and culture—as well as a truly scary portrait of a genuine psychopath.

Tom Piazza with Jon Michaud

Tuesday September 22, 2015
07:00 pm

Tags: Event



Part 2




Photo Credit: Rick Gargiulo (Piazza)

“This rich novel about minstrelsy, slavery, and the dream of escape shows that our demons and our angels haven’t changed much. But the portrait of the struggle is so insightful that it becomes its own strong vision of hope.” — Zachary Lazar, author of I Pity the Poor Immigrant and Sway


“[A Free State] has great kinetic energy, a gripping central narrative, and a host of indelible characters. And, in the current age of identity politics, it speaks to the prevailing cultural obsession with ‘authenticity’ by exposing the fragility of that very notion. A hugely rewarding novel.” — Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane


Center for Fiction favorite Tom Piazza read from and discussed his new novel, A Free State, with The Center's Head Librarian, Jon Michaud. Piazza's A Free State is a startling and powerful novel of race, violence, and identity set on the eve of the Civil War.

About A Free State

The year is 1855. Blackface minstrelsy—the morally complicated white appropriation of black musical forms—is the most popular form of entertainment in a nation about to be torn apart by the battle over slavery. Henry Sims, a fugitive slave and a brilliant musician, has escaped to Philadelphia, where he earns money living by his wits and performing in the street. He is befriended by James Douglass, leader of a popular minstrel troupe, who imagines that Henry’s skill and magnetism might restore his troupe’s sagging fortunes. Together, the two concoct a masquerade to protect Henry’s identity, and Henry creates a sensation in his first appearance. Yet even as their plan begins, a brutal slave hunter named Tull Burton tracks Henry and seeks to retrieve him by any means necessary. The subject of slavery is a perennial staple of American literature, yet no writer has used minstrelsy to illustrate the moral landscape of this era as Piazza does in A Free State. Bursting with narrative tension and unforgettable characters, Piazza’s latest is a thrilling reimagining of the American story by a novelist at the height of his powers. 

Tom Piazza is celebrated both as a novelist and as a writer on American music. His eleven books include the novels A Free State and City Of Refuge, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, and Devil Sent The Rain, a collection of his essays and journalism. He was a principal writer for the innovative HBO drama series TREME, and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, as well as a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Writing. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Bookforum, The Oxford American, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other periodicals. He lives in New Orleans.


Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel. 



This event was funded in part by Poets & Writers with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.