Up from Freedom (August 2018)
When the Mexican-American War ends in 1846, Virgil Moody returns to his life as a farmer in Texas, where he lives with Annie, a black woman, and her son Lucas. Annie dies, Lucas runs off, and Moody vows to find him. His quest takes him to Indiana, where he meets Tamsey, a freed slave, and together they are soon caught in the shadowland between the South and the North, between the United States and Canada, and between Black and White.
Virgil Moody waded a little ahead of the others as they scouted the Rio Grande east of Fort Paredes. The south and north banks were Mexico, but nobody owned the river. They’d heard General de Ampudia was moving the Mexican army north from Monterrey, intending to cross at Las Anacuitas, and General Taylor wanted to know how many they were and what condition they were in. So far they’d heard Ampudia had from six hundred to a thousand permanentes, with another two hundred infantry coming up to join them, no artillery that anyone knew of, maybe a couple of twelve-pounders. There weren’t more than a few hundred Americans at Fort Texas, militiamen like Moody and mostly untrained and badly provisioned volunteers. On patrol that night, splashing behind him, were Stockton Smith, Charlie Warburn, Walt Murdale, Willard Pickart and Jed Baker, with Lieutenant Endicot Millican, their excuse for a captain, bringing up the rear. None of them had any faith in Millican. They went along with him when it didn’t mean anything, but when he walked them down open roads or across fields, even in the dark, Moody knew that when the fighting started, they’d follow their own inclinations and to hell with Millican. Moody thought it was safer at the head of the line. He didn’t want any part of whatever went on behind him.
They happened upon the Mexican patrol at first light, a hundred yards north of the river in what the Texans claimed was the Republic of Texas. The Mexicans were so sure of their right to be there they were cooking their breakfast on open fires, smoke all over the place. The men could smell their damn fish frying. They got down on their bellies and crawled through the underbrush to a ridge above the camp. They saw the Mexicans’ horses tied beside a small arroyo, the silver buckles on their saddles and bridles twinkling through the trees: regiments from San Luis de Posto or maybe San Miguel de Allende, where the silver mines were. Cavalry, anyway, but these boys were careless. The patrol split into two groups without Millican saying a word, and Moody’s group edged along the ridge to the right. They’d each need to get off two shots, and they counted on the suddenness of their attack to give them time to reload. The Mexicans’ firearms, light, dependable East India Pattern muskets, were pyramided between the fires, more carelessness. These couldn’t be trained troops, they were acting like a hunting party out for a Sunday shoot. Their capitán was sitting on a fallen log, writing in a book. Will Pickart shot him. Moody shot one by the fire before he had time to jump up. Stockton missed his first shot and cursed. Moody could hear the others firing at the second group, and three bluecoats went down. The rest ran for their muskets. Moody reloaded and fired into them, but none fell. Then the Texans whooped and charged down the ridge with bayonets fixed. They had to watch their footing because of loose stones, but for a few seconds they weren’t afraid of death. Two Mexicans ran across the creek, and Pickart and Moody went after them. Will chased his down, and Moody ran his into a shallow arroyo, where the soldado turned, put his back against a tree and raised his hands. A boy no more than fifteen or sixteen, hatless, his uniform too big for him, sandals on his feet. There was a lot of indio in him, dark skin, arched eyebrows and the kind of straight, black hair above dark, fathomless eyes that made Moody think of lush forest and running water. Moody stood in front of him while the boy’s hands shook. He raised his bayonet, and Millican ran up behind him.
“Kill him!” he shouted at Moody. “Kill him, you fool!”
That was what he was doing, damn it. But he couldn’t go through with it. Maybe it was Millican telling him to, a man he didn’t respect. Or maybe it was because the boy was the same age as Lucas. But sticking a body was different from shooting at it from the top of a ridge. You had to look him in the eye, you had to hit the inverted V under the crossed bandoleras, you had to remember the twist that cut through the cartilage. Then you had to watch him die.
“Kill the bastard, Moody!”
“Brown said take a few prisoners,” Moody said, but they both knew he was stalling.
“We got two taken back at the camp,” Millican said. “This little bastard won’t know anything. Finish him off, and do it now. That’s a direct order.”
Moody looked at Millican, the whole war, his whole life, condensed into this moment. What if he killed Millican instead? He didn’t move, but he thought about it. Then Millican turned and ran back to the creek, and Moody looked at the Mexican. He was whimpering. He made a sudden movement with his right hand and Moody, startled, thrust the bayonet into his sternum so hard he pinned the boy to the tree. His feet lifted slightly off the ground and his eyes widened. He coughed once, as though he’d only had the wind knocked out of him, and finished raising his hand to his forehead, making the sign of the cross. Moody felt the rib cage settle onto the bayonet. He twisted and pulled, and the musket came away, leaving the bayonet still stuck in the tree. The boy looked at him, the fingers of his left hand curled around the bayonet’s locking mechanism. Moody turned and left him.
“Nothing is forgiven,” his father used to say. “Some things are forgotten, but damn few. And nothing is ever forgiven.”
Jack Lewis, son of a black family in Windsor, Ontario, is light-skinned enough to pass for white by joining the Navy during the Second World War. After the war, he marries Vivian, a white woman from Newfoundland. When he brings her back to Windsor to meet his parents, they become entangled in a world of dark secrets and white lies.
Book Club Guide
“Grady uses his skills to keep his prose quiet, spacious and neat, showing us how his characters navigate racial politics without telling us what to think about it.”
— Globe and Mail
Emancipation Day won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, was long-listed for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize, and was named a best book of 2013 by the Globe & Mail and CBC Books. It is the 2017 One Book One Community selection for Waterloo Region.