Whatever Happened to Mourning Free

Written by Yael Politis
Review by Anna Belfrage

This is the third instalment in Ms Politis series centred round Olivia Killion, a remarkable woman who strives to build herself a life in nineteenth century Michigan. In the previous books, we have followed Olivia’s development from an innocent girl to an independent young woman who has come to realise life is just as much shadow as it is sun – and especially for a white woman in love with a black man.

It was with high expectations I start reading Whatever Happened to Mourning Free, only to come to a very surprised – and disappointed – halt. We are no longer with Olivia Killion in the 1840s, we are with Charlene, Olivia’s distant future relation. It is the 1960s and racial tensions run high in Detroit, escalating to riots in the hot summer of 1967. Caught in all this upheaval is Charlie, the black great-great-great-grandson of Mourning Free and Olivia. Only fifteen, he is all alone in the world and initially contacts Charlene because he knows she is descended from Olivia’s kin – and he has Olivia’s journals. Through these journals, the reader is yet again transported back to Olivia’s time, to her attempts to build a family that somehow includes the love of her life, albeit that she and Mourning can never openly live as a couple. I found the ending to Olivia’s and Mourning’s story inconclusive – somewhat frustrating, but that may only be me.

It is the chapters set in the distant past that truly hook my interest, but as the book evolved I developed a liking both for Charlie and Charlene (and Charlene’s utterly endearing fiancé, Reeves), but I miss the beautiful introspective prose that has come to characterise Ms Politis’ description of Olivia’s life. Charlene’s story is told mostly through dialogue and at times this leads to a lack of depth.

Ms Politis is an excellent writer and her elegant tie-in between the vibrant abolitionist movement of the 1840s and the equally intense demand for equal rights in the US of the 1960’s results in an interesting and thought-provoking book, albeit not quite what I had expected, given the previous two books in the series.

E-book edition reviewed