As a young man, Virgil Moody vowed he would never be like his father, he would never own slaves. When he moves from his father's plantation in Savannah to New Orleans, he takes with him Annie, a tiny woman with sharp eyes and a sharper tongue, who he is sure would not survive life on the plantation. She'll be much safer with him, away from his father's cruelty. And when he discovers Annie's pregnancy, already a few months along, he is all the more certain that he made the right decision.
As the years pass, the divide between Moody's assumptions and Annie's reality widens ever further. Moody even comes to think of Annie as his wife and Lucas as their son. Of course, they are not. As Annie reminds him, in moments of anger, she and Moody will never be equal. She and her son are enslaved. When their "family" breaks apart in the most brutal and tragic way, and Lucas flees the only life he's ever known, Moody must ask himself whether he has become the man he never wanted to bebut is he willing to hear the answer?
Stretching from the war-torn banks of the Rio Brazos in Texas to the muddy waters of Freedom, Indiana, Moody travels through a country on the brink of civil war, relentlessly searching for Lucas and slowly reconciling his past sins with his hopes for the future. When he meets Tamsey, a former slave, and her family trying to escape the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act, Moody sees an opportunity for redemption. But the world is on the cusp of momentous change, and though some things may be forgotten, nothing is ever really forgiven.
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He was sharpening an ax in the kitchen. Rachel had asked him to take it to the barn, but he said it was too cold and he was almost finished and he would clean it up when he was finished. She was dipping candles on the stove when they heard footsteps on the porch. Moody stood and went to the door: two runaways, a boy and a girl, threadbare clothes and no shoes. He had been wondering when something like this would happen. Rachel ushered them into the kitchen. The boy said they’d waited down by the creek until it was dark, and had come up when they saw light in the kitchen window. The boy was all right, a little muddied and cold, but the girl’s dark skin was pebbled and scabby around her nose and mouth, her hair like matted river weeds, and her eyes rimmed with green pus. The cold seemed to have kept her intact, but now that she was inside she was shivering herself apart.
Rachel inspected the girl and took her out to the barn with a pan of warm water and some soap and towels. Moody stayed in the kitchen with the boy, who was scared to death of Moody, possibly because he was still holding the ax. He kept looking to the window, maybe after the girl, maybe just out into the night. There was a bad smell in the room.
“How’d you get here?” Moody asked him, to pass the time.
“Follered de ribber,” he said.
“Massa’s.” He pointed south.
“That your sister?”
He didn’t answer. He looked as though he didn’t understand the question.
“You hungry?” Moody asked.
No answer this time, either. Moody guessed he hadn’t taken it as an offer of food. He got up and put some fried catfish left from their supper on a plate and set it in front of the boy, who stared at it like he thought it might flip up and bite him if he touched it.
“Go ahead,” Moody said. “Watch out for bones.”
Carefully, the boy broke the white meat in half, shoved one piece into his mouth and set the other back on the plate. Then he sat back and looked at Moody while he chewed. Moody got up again and put another portion of fish on the plate along with a slice of crackling bread. The boy did the same with those, broke both in two, ate half and left the other for the girl.
“What’s your name?” Moody asked him.
Before he could not answer again, Rachel came in with the empty pan. “Julius,” she said, “take that food out to your friend. We’ll be along in a minute.”
When the boy was gone, Rachel looked at Moody and he looked at her. She set the pan on the stove and poured more hot water into it. Moody remained seated at the table, letting her see how calm he was.
“How long have you been hiding runaways?” he asked her.
“Since we came here. Before that, really. My mother hid them in her boardinghouse in Huntsville.”
“Do you have some place you hide them?” he asked, thinking someone would be along shortly looking for them.
“Robert built a false wall in the back of the barn,” she said. “I haven’t put them in there yet, but I will.”
“We better tend to it now,” Moody said. “They don’t seem to have come from too far away.”
They went out to the barn, Rachel carrying the pan with more hot water and some fresh towels, Moody scanning the ridge above the road and wishing he had a rifle. His leg hurt. Dante and Beatrice, both stolid horses, looked up from their stalls and fluttered at them when they came in, expecting grain. Satan was in the fourth stall. There was no horse in the third stall, and that was where Rachel had put the two runaways. The girl looked less terrible than she had. She was sitting up eating. Rachel had washed her and given her a clean dress. Julius still looked terrified and Moody wondered if something wasn’t wrong with him after all, something less visible than whatever was wrong with the girl.
Rachel led Moody to the end stall. Satan looked mean, but she was in fact the gentlest of the three. Moody backed her out, and Rachel moved aside a piece of burlap that was nailed to the side wall, revealing a jagged hole about the size of a hand and looked like it had been kicked in by a demented horse. She reached through the hole, turned a wooden catch, and the wall slid open. Expert carpentry; no visible hinges or saw lines in the wood, weighted so it would slide quietly. Moody wouldn’t have seen it was a door even if he’d been looking for one. Behind it was a narrow space, no more than four feet wide, that ran along the width of the barn. He put the lantern through and saw a table at the far end with a jug of water and a few candles on it. Room for maybe ten people, if they didn’t fight. Rachel brought Julius and the girl.
“You’ll be safe in here,” she told them. “There’s good air and no light gets out. Stay until one of us fetches you, do you understand that?” The girl nodded. “You hear anything going on outside, horses or voices or anything, you just stay put. Not a peep, you got that?” She nodded again.
Rachel closed the door and replaced the burlap, and Moody put Satan back in the stall. The big animal seemed to take her role as guard horse seriously.
When they were in the house, Moody refilled the kettle to make tea. He’d have preferred whiskey, it might have helped the pain in his leg, but he’d told Rachel he didn’t drink, which was true because he didn’t have any. He felt virtuous. She sat at the table and rolled up her sleeves as though readying for a fight, but he wasn’t going to fight her.
“What’s wrong with the girl?” he asked.
“She’s fifteen and she’s had two babies already. Whoever owned her kept her in a cage and bred her like an animal. She doesn’t seem to have been given a name, Mr. Moody, not so much as a name. I don’t know what all’s wrong with her. Starvation. Parasites. Infection. She needs a doctor.”
“Where we going to find a doctor who will treat a slave?” he asked.
“They’re not slaves,” Rachel said. “We don’t recognize slavery as a human condition. They are children who are suffering.”
“Still,” he said, “where’re we going to find a doctor who will look at them?”
“I know of one in Huntsville. The same one I would have taken thee to if thy wound hadn’t healed.”
“That’s a day’s ride from here.”
“What do you suggest, Mr. Moody? That I send them on their way with her in that condition? You’ve seen her. She needs proper care.”
Moody reached across the table and took her hand. “How soon can we move them?” he said.
“She needs a day or two.”
“If anyone’s coming after them, they’ll be here before that. I don’t suppose you have anything here we can defend ourselves with?”
“We don’t defend ourselves. We have done nothing that requires defense.”
“I doubt they’ll see it that way,” he said.
They came the next afternoon, a father, son and another man who had the surly look of an overseer. Moody caught the sun glinting off their buckles and heard their horses coming down off the ridge, and readied himself on the porch, keenly feeling the lack of a weapon. He suggested Rachel go inside, but all she did was take off her bonnet.
“At least let me do the talking,” he said.
They stood on the porch trying to look like two people receiving unexpected company.
“Huddy,” the older man, the father, said.
“’Day,” Moody answered. “What brings you boys up here?”
“We’re just out huntin’,” the man said. “Followed some tracks up the crick.”
“Two of them. They stop just here.”
“What kind of tracks were they,” Moody asked, “this time of year?”
The man looked at Moody as though wondering if he were new to the Earth. “You’re Robert Tanner, ain’t you?” he said.
“No,” Moody said. “Name’s Moody.”
“I heard your name was Tanner and you hide runaways.”
“You heard wrong, then. There’s no one named Robert Tanner living on this farm.”
Rachel gave a kind of grunt beside him, but he hadn’t told a lie and he kept his eyes on the men. The son was short with a large head, hair cropped close to his scalp. His ears stuck out and he didn’t seem to have any eyebrows. He grinned all the time, as if looking forward to doing something he loved doing. He reminded Moody of men he’d known in the militia, the kind they were sorry they had to unleash on the enemy, but they did. The one Moody thought was the overseer had an old muzzle loader sitting crossways on his lap and he kept his right finger on the trigger. To shoot, he’d have to raise the barrel over his horse’s head, which would give Moody a few seconds. To do what?
“My name’s Judd,” the father said, raising his eyebrows. “Silas Judd. This here’s my boy, J.J., and that there’s Sam Lerner, my overseer.”
“’Afternoon to you all. There’s no slaves here, Judd, neither yours nor ours. I come from Texas,” he said. “I know how much trouble runaways can be.”
“They surely can,” Judd said. “Fun to hunt, though, ain’t they?” He turned to his son, laughing. “Well, I guess that nigger we whipped was wrong, we’ll have to whip him again. He said you was Quakers and you helped a lot of my runaways.” He looked speculatively at Rachel. “Mind if we look in your barn, ma’am?”
“I surely do mind,” said Moody. “That would be the same as calling me a liar.”
“They might have snuck in there in the night.”
The son made a noise that sounded like air escaping from a bloated cow. He got off his horse and walked to the barn. Moody contrived to look unconcerned. Judd looked unsure, as though he could stop the lad if he wanted to but didn’t want to embarrass him in front of the others. He must have been losing a lot of slaves to be placing such a large bet on these two.
“J.J. has something wrong in his head,” Judd said, touching his hat. “But sometimes he’s right.”
The overseer thought it was his turn to speak up.
“We just want the buck,” he said. “J.J.’s done with the female.”
Moody looked calmly over to him. There were just two of them now, the father and the overseer, both waiting for something to happen. He could see Lerner gauging the distance between himself and Moody and how long it would take him to get his musket over his horse. Maybe too long. Maybe the ball had dropped out of it. He wouldn’t know about Moody’s bad leg; Moody himself didn’t know how fast he could move with it. The overseer yawned and Moody tensed. Yawning usually signaled a stupid move on the way.
Just then the boy came out of the barn alone, and the moment passed. He looked at his father and shrugged, which Moody took to mean he hadn’t found anything but wasn’t convinced there was nothing to find.
“Sorry to bother you, then,” said Judd. “We’ll be on our way.”
“If I see any slaves I’ll let you know. Where’s your place at?”
“Just up along,” he said, nodding back the way they’d come.
“We’re neighbors, then,” Moody said.
“Yep,” said Judd, turning his horse. “We’ll be seeing a lot of each other. Come on, boys.”
Moody and Rachel watched them ride off. Only J.J. looked back, like a child being pulled away from a carnival.
Reading Group Guide
1. How does your perception of Moody change throughout the book, and why? Do you think he ever becomes aware of his complicity in the cycle of slavery?2. Moody falls in love with three different women over the course of the novel: Annie, Rachel and Tamsey. What does he learn from each relationship?3. “It was time for him to stop acting surprised and indignant whenever anyone suggested to him that the reason he hadn’t freed Annie or Lucas was that he had liked it that their relationship was based on ownership, that that was the way he’d been raised, and, hate it though he professed he did, it was the relationship he understood and felt comfortable with.” What do you, the reader, gain by seeing this family relationship—Moody, Annie and Lucas—from different points of view?4. In the novel, we see how slavery travels across generations, impacting each one differently over time. How does slavery impact Annie differently than it does Lucas? What about Tamsey and her children? How do you think the history of slavery has impacted the current generation of African-Americans and African-Canadians?5. Moody notes that black people in the north “are free blacks—a designation that usually signifies a man is free from slavery, but that here has come to mean also a man who works for free. Or for wages so low that he can’t afford to do anything about his situation.” Do you think Moody’s observation has any merit? Is it possible to have the legal rights of a free person, but to still lack freedom?6. Moody is fascinated by geology—by changes in nature over time, how the natural world is a product of these changes, and how all these changes leave a trace on the Earth. In what ways do memory and human history resemble geology? Is it ever possible to escape our past? How do we reconcile ourselves with our shared history?7. Parts of Up From Freedom are meant to raise ethical and philosophical questions for the reader without necessarily providing answers. What questions did the novel raise for you? Do you think those questions are relevant in the current global climate?8. Mr. Kastchen tells Moody that many people who oppose slavery—including the Religious Society of Friends—also oppose the Underground Railroad, believing that the most effective way to end slavery is through political channels and legal change. “The Society believes that helping a few thousand individuals into Canada is nothing compared to freeing four million with the stroke of a pen, but the way I see it, our few thousand will still be alive when the changes come, if it does, whereas if we didn’t help them, they almost certainly would not be.” When is it better to take legal routes to enact change, and when might it be necessary to take direct action? How does one decide? Where does one draw the line?9. There are horrific scenes of violence against black people throughout the novel—how did the writing affect you?10. As you read Up From Freedom you meet many characters and then have to say goodbye to them without knowing what their fate will be. What does this sense of unease do to you as you’re reading? Why do you think Grady does this?11. What conclusions about racial divisions based on skin color can be drawn from the trial?12. At the trial, Tamsey finally gets to tell her story. What effect do you think it has on the outcome of the trial? What effect does her story have on you?13. Tamsey advises Moody that, rather than simply freeing the slaves on his Georgia plantation, he should ask them what they want. Why do you think she says that? Is it fair to ask the oppressed to come up with their own solutions to the problems of racism? Or is it better to impose the oppressor’s concept of freedom on those who seek social change?14. “Nothing was forgiven. Somethings were forgotten, but damn few, and only for a time. But nothing is ever forgiven.” This was Moody’s internal struggle throughout the novel. Do you agree with Moody? Why or why not?15. Who would you recommend Up From Freedom to? Why?