PHILADELPHIA -- Lincoln is dead. The Confederates have surrendered. After near self-destruction, a fractured country begins to put itself back together.
And in Leonard Pitts Jr.'s new novel, "Freeman," newly freed former slaves set out to reassemble their lives, loves, and families.
"I've always been fascinated by this period in American history," says the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and commentator.
African-Americans piecing together shattered lives: Freeman is a myth of what's humanly possible, a needed story about little-known heroism, and a shadow thrown forward to the struggles of American families in the 21st century.
Pitts says the germ of this, his second novel, was planted in the 1980s, when he read the book "Been in the Storm So Long," by Leon F. Litwack.
"What tugged at my heart," Pitts says, "was all the things the slaves did to reconstruct their families, which had been torn apart by slavery. This was 1865, no computers, no telephones, no records of any use. Against all these odds, these people go through herculean efforts to get back to brothers, sisters, fathers, sons, loved ones."
Sam, of "Freeman," is one such character. His quest begins in Philadelphia, where he's got a secure job as a librarian. But he leaves in search of Tilda, the mother of his son. He hopes and believes she is still in Mississippi, where they once made a home.
"Many Americans, I'm finding, don't know a lot about what people went through," says Pitts, speaking by phone from Washington.
What he learned from his research, he says, is that "these people honored the social institutions they had been denied, and they sought the dignity of things like marriage, the documents, even when they could not read."
Sam is not married to Tilda, slaves being barred from marriage. "But the point is, he considers himself married to her," Pitts says, "which is what drives him to take these measures."
Pitts, 54, is a widely syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. He won the 2004 Pulitzer for commentary. His column "From here we'll go forward," published the day after Sept. 11, 2001, is often cited as one of that decade's best. In it, he addressed the authors of that day's terror attacks:
"Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, cultural, political and class division, but a family nonetheless."
Pitts insisted that, despite the divisions, there were resilience and toughness in this apparently riven family:
"You see, there is steel beneath this velvet. That aspect of our character is seldom understood by people who don't know us well. On this day, the family's bickering is put on hold. As Americans, we will weep; as Americans, we will mourn; and as Americans, we will rise in defense of all that we cherish."
Pitts is a writer who often thinks in terms of family. You can see that in the passages above, and in his 2006 nonfiction book, "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood." So does "Freeman" speak in those terms to the present moment?
"There's an implicit comment, I suppose, on what has become of family in the African-American community in the 150 years since the Civil War," he says. "The stereotype, and at times the reality, is dysfunction, difference, absenteeism, and when you put that against what the freed slaves did to get back together, it's hard not to feel that the past comments on the present."
Then, both bold and careful, Pitts extends that point to the uncomfortable, and anecdotally but broadly echoed "disconnect, free-floating anger, between African-American men and women, particularly among singles. It seems in large ways we've given up on each other."
Tales of heroic efforts at reconciliation among former slaves act as contrast and reminder: "Here we have a man saying: 'I'm going to walk 100, 200, 600 miles to find this woman. We're not married, but I'm going to find her because I love her.'aa"
Pitts, best known as a nonfiction writer, calls the shift to fiction "just a matter of taking off one hat and putting on another," setting aside the commentator and learning to create "characters and situations that are multidimensional, and resist your efforts to impose your own arguments on them."
He singles out Captain James McFarland, "Marse Jim," "whom my son calls 'the most evil villain I've ever read.'aa"
You definitely could call Marse Jim a villain. Deprived of his slaves by the fall of the South, he hunts out and kills former slaves -- and anyone, of any color, who lends them a hand. But Pitts says Marse Jim is not the black-hat, one-dimensional figure "too many villains are in movies and books. That whole thing shows a misunderstanding of what evil is about." The key to Marse Jim is that "he does horrible things out of motives that are understandable, given the terms in which he's lived his life."
What terms? For one thing, he's hardly alone. He's part of a culture of depraved rage, just one of many angry former slaveholders taking out revenge. For another, he has lost a son in the conflict and is lashing out in grief. "And he can't get it through his head that these human beings, whom he bought and paid off in what he considers a legal way, have been taken from him. He can't quite make that leap. His limitations make him kind of haunting to me."
Haunting indeed is the chaotic, bewildering landscape of the postwar America of 1865. Many of the people in "Freeman" face near-impossible choices, and have to make compromises that are "difficult and tragic." Characters such as Tilda learn, Pitts says, that "freedom is less about being not enslaved than it is about turning a corner inside."
And that question still hangs in the air 147 years later, as the nation pitches into the election of 2012: "What does freedom mean?"