Freedom Dues

Written by Indra Zuno
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

1729: Poverty drives fifteen-year-old Antrim linen weaver Blair Eakins and his brother to emigrate as indentured servants to Maryland. On a prison ship, Mallie Ambrose, an orphan pickpocket sentenced to transportation and, in effect, domestic and often sexual slavery, also makes the squalid and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic. Eventually, their paths cross and love blossoms.

The thoroughness of Zuno’s research is impressive (this reviewer is an Antrim-born descendent of flax-dressers). She captures the voice and beliefs of Ulster Presbyterians at a time when the Penal Laws subjected them to similar restrictions to those imposed on the Catholic population (but note, Irish is not a dialect). The brutality and injustices both Blair and Mallie are subjected to are described unflinchingly, though Mallie is the more vulnerable for being female and a child.

There is weakness in characterization, however, making it sometimes difficult to keep in mind which of the two households is being described, and the players are sometimes overwhelmed by the wealth of historical detail because they are not vivid to the same degree. Structurally, at times it seemed the author was eager not to leave anything out, even if it did not appreciably advance the plot; Mallie being taught to read by her mistress was a Chekhovian gun that stayed pretty firmly nailed to the wall, and Blair’s initial attempt to abscond could probably have been cut out altogether. I wondered indeed if this could have been not one book but three. These caveats aside, the reader might reliably learn a great deal about the lot of indentured servants in pre-revolutionary America, and the circumstances that drove them there.