Up From Freedom by Wayne Grady
Just over three years ago Wayne Grady read from the stage at the Charles W. Stockey Centre from his first novel Emancipation Day. Emancipation Day told the story of a young sailor, Jack, a man who is “black” but so white skinned that he “passes for white”. Jack is in the Canadian Navy, stationed in St. John’s, Newfoundland during the Second World War. He marries a local girl and brings her back to Ontario where they raise a family together, Jack never disclosing his racial heritage. This novel was inspired by Wayne Grady’s own father and very much based on his life and the lives of his ancestors and descendants.
When Wayne Grady made the discovery that his heritage was not Irish but Black American he says his first thought was, “My father’s family – my family – was not from Ireland; we were from Africa. We were – we are – African Canadians. My second thought was: I have a book.” And now he has another.
Wayne Grady’s new novel Up From Freedom delves further into the past, as the author researched the earlier history of his family back to the days of slavery in the United States. Once again, the expression “truth is stranger than fiction” was in my thoughts as I read.
Up From Freedom is an exceptional novel, and one that I expect will be widely read both in Canada and the United States, and around the world. The novel begins in 1848, as we meet Virgil Moody, and the woman he lives with, a former slave Annie, and her son, Lucas. To Virgil they are his family. He left his home, a plantation in Georgia some years earlier, because he was opposed to the idea of owning slaves. He lived in New Orleans for a time, and now lives with Annie and her son on an out of the way farm in Texas. They live in relative peace until tragedy comes, leaving Annie dead and Lucas missing. Virgil sets out on a quest to find the boy he considers his own son.
Moody’s journey will take him into the homes of Quakers, men and women who shelter slaves and help them move on to a chance at safety further north. For Moody this is not only a physical journey, but also one that is emotional and intellectual. When he meets another former slave Tamsey and her family he is drawn to them as he was to Annie and Lucas, and knows he needs to bring them to safety. Not able to do so before the arrest of Tamsey’s son, they are all forced to stay for a time in Indiana while the young man, and his wife, are brought to trial.
One of the most disturbing, but brilliantly written, passages in the novel is the speech made by the prosecuting lawyer, and the most exhilarating passage is the testimony of Tamsey.
Wayne Grady is a mature writer, the author of several works of non-fiction, and one of Canada’s top literary translators. Up From Freedom brings all of his skill as a writer to the page, and his story is one you will not forget. The afterword tells us that, once again, this novel was inspired by the lives of his ancestors, and their place in the history of the United States and Canada.