CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 1. . . .September 9, 2016
Freedom's Just Another Word.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2016.
232 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Myra Junyk.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Growing up in Saskatoon, I’d never seen a black hooker, mostly because there were so few blacks in Saskatoon to begin with. I’m black (well, half-black) but other than one old man at whom everyone pointed because his grandfather had been a slave, and a girl in school who wasn’t allowed to come to my birthday party because we played music and kept Jesus out of the house, there weren’t any black people in my neighborhood at all. Besides us.
I wasn’t raised in the upscale area, but I didn’t live in the gutter either. I lived with my parents, Clarence and Thelma Merritt, not far from downtown, on a street that had a few trees, and you could go out after dark without being armed. Clarence was a mechanic, and we lived over top of his garage. I didn’t mind it as a child, but by the time 1970 rolled around and I was eighteen, I’d spent many a night peering into that dark sinkhole known as my future, craftily planning how I’d get the hell out of Saskatoon.
It is 1970 in Saskatoon, SK, and Louisiana (nicknamed Easy) desperately wants to leave her home to become a blues singer. She thinks she has a boring life as a car mechanic in her father’s garage. However, when she hears that Janis Joplin is passing through town on the train, she decides that she must connect with her blues-rock singing idol. “Everyone chooses a certain moment, a particular experience from which they look ahead, and to which they return, time and again, wondering if life would have been different had that one incident never occurred. For me, it was meeting Janis – or Pearl, as she chose to be called – outside a liquor store in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.” (p. 2)
Janis Joplin was known for her amazing voice, but she was also famous for her reckless lifestyle and her addiction to drugs and alcohol. Easy not only meets Janis, but befriends her in their short time together. Janis Joplin promises Easy an audition if she travels to Austin, Texas, in the next week. Through a strange twist of fate, Easy manages to hitch a ride with two Catholic nuns to Austin, Texas, along Route 66. Their journey through the deeply segregated United States teaches her a great deal about intolerance, racism, and hatred. In the end, Easy manages to connect with Janis Joplin only to discover that what she thought was important to her was not really that important at all.
Freedom's Just Another Word is an extraordinary novel with a courageous narrator. Louisiana (Easy) is a black teenager who has dealt with racism and discrimination throughout her entire life. As the child of a black garage owner and a white prostitute, she was the target of prejudice and ridicule. However, her kind and loving adoptive mother, Thelma, has brought her up in a secure and loving environment. “Our little place over the garage was the warmest place on earth.” (p. 13) Thelma is the voice of reason and continues to be a calming influence on Easy despite her recent death. Although Easy encounters racism in Saskatoon, there is very little segregation and no racially motivated violence. When she travels along Route 66, she encounters the appalling extent of racial hatred in the United States.
Easy’s narrative style is both honest and believable. She openly shares her views of racists and bigots. She cannot tolerate the uppity way that the novice Marsha Evanko behaves. She is shocked when Marsha leaves behind a drug addict who desperately wants to meet Janis Joplin because it is inconvenient to take him with them. Easy’s journey is not an “easy” one in this novel; however, she makes some very difficult choices with dignity. Her mother Thelma’s words guide her, “Live your own life and do your best and you’ll see how things will turn out right for you.” (p. 25)
The novel does not shy away from controversy. The portrait of Janis Joplin is brutally honest and fascinating, and adds a historical dimension to this beautifully written novel. Janis has a very difficult life, but she is also a very sympathetic character. She is a hard drinker and a drug addict, but she is also kind, sympathetic and understanding. She even admires the novice Marsha Evanko. The portrait of Sister Evanko is also controversial. She is supposed to be dedicated to helping others, but she is often intolerant and unconcerned about the welfare of the poor and unfortunate. She must learn about kindness, empathy and social justice before she takes on the role of a nun.
Caroline Stellings has written a powerful novel named after a famous Janis Joplin song. It explores racial divisions, humanity, love, family, honesty, integrity, and respect. Readers will not soon forget this novel: “Never give up, Easy said Thelma in my mind. No matter what they call you, no matter how hard it gets, never give up.” (p. 52)
A resident of Toronto, ON, Myra Junyk is a literacy advocate and author.
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