Freedom's Just Another Word

by Dakota Hamilton

Published by HarperCollins

344 pages, 1998


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First Novel Defies Categorization

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Freedom's Just Another Word has some recipes in it, but it's not a cookbook. The main characters are all women, but it's not women's fiction. The book is stylishly written, but I wouldn't call it literary fiction, and though a lot of the action takes place in jail and on the lam, it's not crime fiction either. Some of the action centers around a murder that takes place in flashbacks and we're never really sure whodunit, yet the book is not a mystery.

While I read Freedom's Just Another Word, I kept trying to categorize it. It beat me. It doesn't belong in a category. And while that might be making the book a tough sell, it doesn't stop it from being a wonderful read.

The story is told by Maggie Hoffer, residing in a women's maximum security prison when the book opens, pondering the suicide of her husband, a biker known to just about everyone as Mongrel. Hamilton gets the reader's attention in the book's opening paragraphs:

One day my husband, Mongrel, walks upstairs from the basement into the kitchen, where I'm making brownies. He points a gun at my head and tells me to sit down at the table. So I do. Then he tells me that everything's a total fuck-up and we might as well both be dead.

I'm not arguing, that's for sure, especially with a gun pointing right at me. I mean, he's a great shot and everything, but what if he misses and I end up with brain damage or something? I'm a vegetable for the rest of my life. I ask him if he wants a brownie.

"Mags, are you seriously asking me if I want a brownie?" he says.

"Well, they're right out of the over, the way you like them," I say.

"I'm pointing a gun at your head and all you can think about are brownies?" he says, shaking his head. "I gotta wonder sometimes how we ever lasted as long as we did."

"You're just having a bad day, Mongrel," I say.

"No, Mags, I'm having a bad life," he says. Then he turns the gun around, points it at his chest, and pulls the trigger.

In jail for murdering her husband, Maggie meets a beautifully drawn set of characters. Sam and Darlene are the lesbians in the next cell, and Maggie feels a special affinity for Sam: in some ways the woman reminds her of her dead husband.

Mongrel would shit a brick if he knew I was friends with them. He had a real problem with same-sex sex. For him, life was simple -- meat and potatoes, beer and baseball, and men screwing from on top, mostly. End of story.


Maggie's cell mate -- Big Dee -- is a six-foot tall black woman who does manicures. And Stella is native and burns sage to cleanse the energy in her cell: when she isn't chain smoking.

Author Dakota Hamilton's narrative -- via Maggie -- is clean and inspiring. It's hard not find yourself drawn to a place you never wanted to go, and meeting people you never thought you'd want to meet. And as interesting a trip as the reader may find it, Maggie's having none of it. She chafes at her loss of freedom, and soon finds herself hatching a plan to escape. Before long, the other women on her unit are part of it and they start a 12-step program to give them room to breathe and talk in private while they plot. Feelings Anonymous is a cover for Freedom Anonymous :

STEP ONE
WE ADMITTED THAT WE WERE POWERLESS OVER OUR INCARCERATION AND THAT OUR LIVES HAD BECOME UNMANAGEABLE.

And so it goes, the plot to freedom becoming more tangible as they follow their program.

While they plot, we learn more about Maggie and the life she had before her husband's death. We see the gentle and loving side of dope-dealing, drug-smuggling Mongrel as well as other facets less attractive.

And every so often -- like weird but effective punctuation -- a recipe cuts the narrative. The prison's penchant for serving boiled chicken leads Maggie to thinking about chicken preparation, and thoughts of comfort foods lead to recipes for fudge and rice pudding. The recipes don't make you want to cook (well, they didn't make me want cook) but they do add to the cadence and rhythm of the book. They also look very much like they'd work if you made them: though I don't really think that's the point.

Again with the attempt at categorization: Freedom's Just Another Word is very funny in places, but it's not a comedy. Sometimes it's touching and heartwarming, but it's not a feel-good story. But for all of the things the book isn't, there's one very important thing that it is: an absolutely compelling read. Start to finish and with never a foot wrong, Hamilton's first novel is stunning. | September 10, 1998

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several novels.