Miss Bates appreciates a good author’s note, especially at the end of a historical romance. A sense of where the author is coming from, her interests and motivations, and a tad about research are enlightening. One senses, Susanna Fraser, from her author’s note at the end of her latest, is thoughtful, respectful of historical mood, and details of time and place. She’s considered in her characterization, drawing her characters from historical context. Certainly, Miss Bates greatly enjoyed Fraser’s début, The Sergeant’s Lady, with its unique titled lady and ordinary soldier-hero, a nice reversal of the usual duke-and-commoner-focussed histrom.
In Freedom To Love, Fraser tackled a cross-class and mixed-race identity to her romantic couple and placed them in Louisiana at the end of the War of 1812. Though only spare to his brother’s, Charles, heir-status, Henry Farlow, officer in his majesty’s army, is still aristocratic. Part of General Pakenham’s retreating British forces at the 1815 Battle for New Orleans, wounded and disoriented, Henry wanders onto the Chalmette Plantation where he meets Thérèse Bondurant and her half-sister, Jeannette. Thérèse and Jeannette sneaked onto the plantation, now their father is dead, to find treasure he left behind for them. They must seize the jewels before the rightful plantation owners, their cousins, Bertrand and Jean-Baptiste, discover them. In addition to the treasure, they find and care for the wounded Henry. Thus, the three of them, Thérèse, free woman of mixed race, with a grandmother of African and Choctaw origins, Jeannette, the enslaved sister she wants to free, and a defeated, wounded British officer take refuge on an abandoned plantation hoping to flee before the Bondurant cousins claim the treasure and hand the delirious Henry over to American forces as a POW.
Fraser writes in the Carla Kelly bent for the sheer decency of her hero and heroine. Though Thérèse could pass for white and easily leave her half-sister behind, she chooses to run away with her to ensure Jeanette enjoys the same freedom she does. Henry, though wounded, saves Jeanette and Thérèse from Bertrand’s rape attempts. When Henry kills Bertrand, with Jean-Baptiste as witness, he, Thérèse, and Jeanette evade authorities by making their way from New Orleans to Canada to England. The novel is about their encounters with danger and beauty, with selfishness and generosity in the people they meet, with helpers and hinderers, with a changing landscape and changing selves. Along the way, Henry and Thérèse fight, debate, converse, deny and finally accept their attraction, and fall in love.
Thérèse, as we and Henry come to know her, is defined by her regal bearing, beauty, and fierce loyalty to those she cares about. Henry, as we and Thérèse come to know him, is defined by his gallantry, his knight in shining armor ethos and love for the two women who saved him and who he, in turn, protects. But Henry and Thérèse are plagued by self-doubt. For most of the narrative, Thérèse ponders her mixed-race status; she never wants to deny who she is, but when she falls in love with Henry, their union poses problems: how will she fit in? Her mother warned her: “Don’t make my mistake, Mama had warned her as she lay dying. Don’t fall in love with a white man. Promise me.” Thérèse remembers her mother’s advice and keeps it in her heart. Will what separates them dominate what brings them together? How will she navigate new worlds when she’s a woman who needs order and a place in the scheme of things that is familiar, as she had with her fiancé in New Orleans? Henry, in turn, as a second son, but still a British officer, has his own burden: he is unable to read, or write. He’s dyslexic, though he can’t name his dilemma. He’s feels stupid and worries that a life with Thérèse and the children they might have will turn out to be like him. He worries he’s unworthy of Thérèse: “He longed to help her, to ride to her rescue like a knight in an old tale. But what could a wounded, defeated soldier in a foreign land do?” And one who, confronted with a simple playbill in one scene, cannot read it. Henry suffers terribly from how he sees himself and Thérèse from how society sees her. They do find sanctuary in each other, become each others’ strengths, and learn to accept that the world will not always follow them there.
Thérèse and Henry go a long way to boosting each other’s confidence; yet, Miss Bates found their respective backstory burdens became the whole of their characters. Certainly, dealing with mixed-race ancestry and dyslexia in those times are great burdens, it still made for characterization weighed down by these identities. Thérèse and Henry were the sum of their problems and their romance paled. Moreover, they were wholly sympathetic and decent: no chinks in the armor of their goodness. They acted right and thought right; they were consistently the underdogs of their world. And Miss Bates, while she respected and sympathized with how they confronted many obstacles, didn’t find them terribly interesting, didn’t find them flawed and fleshy … her favourite kind of characters.
As Miss Bates already discussed, Fraser’s Freedom To Love is a road romance. Thérèse, Henry, and Jeanette flee New Orleans after Bertrand’s death, making their way north. The road romance, by its nature, is episodic; this would be a good way to describe Fraser’s narrative. Our hero and heroine encounter many different types of people. Fraser’s canvas is broad and well-researched, but Miss Bates admits she found two-thirds of the novel slow-going, even though the main characters faced danger at every step. Secondary characters alternated between fascinating, like the glimpse of the underground railroad, and a scene where Henry kills an alligator, and tedious, like the various characters they meet on boats and trails. Narrative threads that Miss Bates thought might be resolved were dropped, or dismissed, like the appearance, at least to the British army, of Henry’s desertion, or his killing of Bertrand. Susanna Fraser’s Freedom To Love is a worthy romance; however, in Miss Bates’ estimation, not a terribly captivating one. Miss Austen says it’s “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Susanna Fraser’s Freedom To Love, published by Carina Press, has been available since January 5th, in e-format, at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates received a courtesy e-ARC from Carina Press, via Netgalley.