Friday, June 23, 2023

A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett


Publication Date: August 28, 1995

Length: 407 pages

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐☆☆

I have only read two of Follett's books, Fall of Giants and The Pillars of the Earth. I enjoyed both although the former more so. This book is a stand alone novel and not part of a series like he is known for so I thought it would be a good departure from his other works. Plus, it was written before the others and I was curious to see what his earlier work was like. 

Mack McAsh is a poor, downtrodden Scottish coal miner living on the hope that one day he can be free to live his own life away from the hardships of his small Scottish village. Unfortunately, it seems the law in Scotland in the year 1767 states that once a child begins working in the mines they are property of the owner of the mines for life. When Mack finds out the law has changed he presents his side in church to the powers that be and the townspeople and so begins his struggles with the wealthy mine owners, the unscrupulous Jamisson family.  Frustrated and sure he must get away or die in this miserable situation, Mack decides to leave his village and his twin sister and strike out on his own, promising Esther he will return for her. Having lost their parents years ago, Mack is all she has but she agrees to wait for word from him and continue in the mines alone. 

Mack escapes and travels to London, hoping to earn enough money to send for his sister. He quickly finds that life is not any easier in a large city where he is supposedly "free" to make his own decisions. Taking odd jobs and staying with new friends proves to be challenging and disheartening and soon Mack finds himself engaging in anything that will keep him afloat. Prize fighting, clearing coal from ships...nothing is off limits to survive and through his determination and burgeoning leadership qualities he finds himself becoming someone the poor workers around him look up to. When he realizes they are being conned out of most of their earned wages by degenerate mob bosses, Mack decides to form his own group of workers who just want to be paid what they are worth. This proves his undoing when it angers those who have run the docks for years their way and do not take kindly to the upstart stranger. 

During this time we are introduced to new characters in the form of Cora, a pickpocket who preys on wealthy, unsuspecting gentlemen and her sidekick, Peg, a young girl of thirteen who is living on the streets and working alongside Cora. As Mack becomes fond of both, he finds them becoming a family of sorts and feeling responsible for them. Through many twists of fate, Mack is targeted by the former mine owners, the Jamissons, who do business in London and have realized they can make his life miserable. Sentenced on a trumped up charge to deportation to the American colonies, Mack finds himself, Cora and Peg on a ship, chained like cattle and bound for Virginia to work on the recently acquired Jamisson tobacco plantation. Although not much more than a slave and  unsure of the future, Mack is nevertheless hopeful that he will be able to eventually begin a new life in America. 

Upon arriving in the colonies, Mack, Cora and Peg find themselves in constant survival mode and doubt they can break away from their miserable lives. Things are at least as bad, if not worse than they were working in the coal mines of Scotland.  The beautiful Lizzie Hallim, a childhood friend is the mistress of the plantation, making Mack both elated and frustrated because his feelings for her run beyond that of the propriety expected of them. Lizzie, newly married to the youngest Jamisson, is hopeful that her marriage and life in the colonies will prove to be more fulfilling than the one she left behind in Scotland. Both Mack and Lizzie find themselves growing closer as disillusion and hardships grow, and they eventually will have to make choices that put them both in danger and possibly, in love.

This book has such a great premise, written in three parts, moving from Scotland to London and ending up in Virginia. The characters get to experience life just prior to the American Revolution and have adventures that take them into the western frontier. Reading the synopsis it sounds like such a great, absorbing story and it is in a lot of ways. Follett is known for sticking to historical facts and I appreciate that as one of my biggest peeves in modern novels is the way a perfectly good history story is ruined with inaccuracies which people come to believe as facts. I learned things about Scottish coal mining, London street life, and the running of a tobacco plantation as well as how it must have felt to have traveled beyond civilization at that time in America. So in that respect, it was a solid read.

The reason I am only able to give it three stars is that the character development, dialogue, and personal romantic storyline is sorely lacking. This is clearly an early attempt by Follett and nothing close to his later work. It almost reads like a YA novel but with the occasional foul language (which I don't care for in any book) and semi-graphic sexual scenes it can't be listed as that either. I found myself getting really absorbed in the history and action only to be yanked back into silly conversations between the characters and choppy, awkward prose that felt like a teenager was writing it. When an author is trying something new I'm sure there is a learning curve and clearly this is true here because it is nothing like his later books. It doesn't put me off reading the rest of the Century trilogy or trying his other stuff but be warned if you are expecting the depth of his more recent books you might be surprised and give up on this one. 

I am not sorry I read it though because it really was informative and interesting as far as the time period goes. To me, reading new parts of history and learning are never a waste of time so it was one I decided to keep going with and finish.

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