Katy Simpson Smith sets her second novel in 1788 and shows, as she has before, her gift for conjuring the lives and predicaments of people of an earlier time.
"Free Men" follows three men sought for murder as they travel west from what is today Alabama. They are Bob, a black man who has escaped slavery on a sugar plantation; Istillicha, a Creek Indian whose position of power in his town has been usurped by an enemy, and Cat, a white man, God-addled by guilt over the deaths of his wife and child.
The men, thrown together by chance in the wild, had come across a party of travelers carrying bags of silver coin. Killing four of them, they left some slaves in the retinue alive, and, now, weighed down by the heavy silver, the fugitives are pursued by a French tracker, Le Clerc.
A natural historian seeking scientific fame, Le Clerc sees in the makeup of the killers a "rare encapsulation of the types of man, a scale model of American brutality and independence." He follows them easily, remaining hidden, but studying them, "hunting the human temperament," as he conceives it.
While Le Clerc is creeping around looking for clues to an unassailable theory of human nature, the three men are sharing stories from their diversely unfortunate pasts in their own distinct voices.
Bob has left a wife and children enslaved on the plantation and is determined to rescue them after establishing a farm in the west with his share of the silver.
Istillicha tells of the escalating perfidy in his village that led to his going off into the world. His portion of silver will, he believes, buy him the connections necessary to regain his position; at the same time, we gradually see how money has subtly corroded his relationships, and the plot gains some torque as we learn how Istillicha's life has been entwined with one of the dead men.
Then there is Cat, disheveled of mind, who tells of his mad, brutal father, of life in an orphanage, and of being indentured to a doctor who kept him in virtual slavery until he ran away. He married, but his wife and baby died in childbirth, a misfortune he believes he could have prevented. His voice has a naive whimsicality that is a little hard to take and, is perhaps, the novel's only false note.
Added to the men's points of view is that of Bob's wife, Winna, weighing her and her children's lot as slaves against the risk of attempting freedom. Altogether the stories are glimpses into a vanished but fully realized world, one which has completely engaged us by novel's satisfying end.
Katherine A. Powers reviews widely and is the editor of "Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963."