Imagine wanting freedom so badly you would chop off your shackled hand to escape slavery. That is what Samuel Long did, and as Norman Lock tells his story in A FUGITIVE IN WALDEN WOODS, Samuel’s travels via the Underground Railroad bring him to Concord, Massachusetts. There Ralph Waldo Emerson sets Samuel up in a cabin very near Henry David Thoreau’s small house in the Walden woods.
Emerson is concerned about the state of Thoreau’s health, for he is known to have consumption. And so Samuel Long becomes a helpmate, fishing partner and confidante to Thoreau.
This being a historical novel, I had to ask myself if Samuel Long was real. Since Thoreau was known to be an abolitionist, it would not be a stretch to imagine him hanging out with a fugitive slave. The answer is negatory, but I fell for the ruse.
I was all in — captivated by the whole setup, one where readers are asked to believe that Samuel starts writing a recollection of the time period (July, 1845 – September, 1846) he spent with Thoreau not long after Thoreau dies in 1862.
The wonderful thing is, we can tell by Samuel’s fine narrative style that he has become educated. He has thought long and hard about his association with Thoreau and fellow Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
You could not ask for more of a contrast than the one Long creates, in which an escaped slave is thrown into the company of such erudite, high-minded, liberal thinkers. Samuel often feels unsure of himself around them, “stewed to a pulp” by the inferno of slavery. Though grateful for Emerson’s help, Samuel grows sick of being a curiosity and is lonely amongst Concord society.
Quoting Amos Bronson Alcott, Samuel tells us that, indeed, Thoreau could “talk the ears off a field of corn.” Samuel observes that Thoreau “had peeled the veneer of civilization like bark from a stick.” Changeable as the wind, in many ways Thoreau was an enigma to Samuel. “There were as many Henries as there were people who held opinions of him.”
Samuel lets us know that he can only write about “my Henry.” And Samuel confesses that he loved Hawthorne more than Thoreau, for in Hawthorne Samuel found a fellow melancholic, one whose “gentle eyes were often sad.”
Looking back, Samuel ultimately admires Thoreau for his breadth of thought and nonconformity. I felt immensely rewarded by Samuel’s ability to speak his truth, not only about the company he kept, but also by his brave retelling of his escape from slavery and what it felt like to be dropped into White society.
Alas, one bugaboo I had about the book comes towards the very end, when a dramatic incident concerning Samuel’s runaway status left me reeling in shock. Involving both Samuel and Thoreau, it defies credulity, at least for me… No spoilers here, but let it be said that the final chapter makes any discussion of the book all the juicier.
A Fugitive in the Walden Woods is one of four in Lock’s highly imaginative American Novels series. Other famous Americans he has conjured in the series include Huck Finn, Walt Whitman, General George Custer and Edgar Allan Poe.
Feeling, as I did, that I had stepped into the 1840s reading Lock’s take on Thoreau and an imaginary freedman, I bet I would also enjoy traveling back in time via the others in this distinguished series.
Keddy Ann Outlaw
A librarian for nearly 30 years, Keddy is also a veteran reviewer for Library Journal. Formerly an art major, she’s now busy making mixed media collages, prints and assemblages, and posting as “The Lone Star Librarian” on her website, Speed of Light.