The Search for Freedom

  • Sara MacDonald and Barry Craig
    Fate and Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards. Lexington Books (purchase at
Reviewed by Jason Rotstein

Freedom is a choice. This is the radical account that Sara MacDonald and Barry Craig present of the later novels of David Adams Richards. The Friends of Meager Fortune, Mercy Among the Children, The Lost Highway, and Crimes Against My Brother are novels, to the commentators, which describe a course toward freedom. Freedom is truly a state of being: it is a choice and an end point:

It is simply not the case that the tragedies and pain that mark [Richards’] novels are the result simply of chance or socioeconomic structures or hostile cosmos. While all of those, and other external factors, play roles in what happens to his characters throughout his works, those external forces are not at the heart of his [Richards’] artistic vision. The real question of interest is what moral choices his characters make in the face of these external forces.

The book of commentary (rather than criticism) follows four of Richards’ later novels, re-narrating and commenting on the plots. In Richards’ schemes, what is bleak and hopeless can also preserve epiphanies of freedom. This book addresses objections that Richards’ work is unkind to his characters, his plots booby-trapped with inescapable fates and prophecies that doom and debilitate. Events and characters are reframed in the commentators words as “studies of human resilience, and the triumphs of [Richards’] characters are the moments of their greatest freedom.”

Freedom exists in the possibility of another account. If, according to Richards, “the only way a person can be free is through self-sacrifice,” then freedom is to be cultivated and hunted; it is monastic. In Richards’ paradigm, freedom cannot be finally captured. The authors describe a “practical freedom” and a freedom that is “achieved” from moral choices that often culminate in characters working to their “practical detriment.” Without saying so, the authors repeatedly point out the contradictions inherent in Richards’ works. Generally, freedom is portrayed as “freedom to” or “freedom from.” Freedom in Richards’ account is more akin to godly love and freedom through a hoped-for redemption. Does Richards, therefore, present a third category—“freedom as” or “freedom in between”?

MacDonald and Craig recast and contextualize the moments of violence in Richards’ works as confrontations, as liminal moments. It is not so much that characters transcend their human nature through finding freedom, but that freedom is “enjoyed” in the mediation between the finite and the infinite. Access to the divine is had through finding freedom in godly sacrifice and love. For instance, of The Lost Highway, a novel that traffics in a highway of lost souls, the authors write: “Regardless of the outcome of Alex’s natural life, the reader understands that by saving Amy, Alex’s eternal good has been achieved.” What is gained or added by calling this freedom? In fact, as MacDonald and Craig state, Richards does not differentiate between his characters in terms of their ability to overcome circumstances—unforgiving hard fates—with love and forgiveness.

On the face of it, Richards’ schemes can seem overly simplistic. The authors quote Richards as saying “sin limits freedom.” But what the authors show is that when Richards pushes his characters to their limits, freedom sometimes begins to ache out. (One is reminded of a demanding director.) Therefore, Richards’ characters are controlled performances. Within Richards’ works, freedom is true when it is infinite, and he uses minor characters to light on freedom as love. Freedom is infinite because, as Sydney tells Lyle and Autumn in Mercy Among the Children, we cannot run away from our lives’ fates; suffering has meaning because it compels the characters in Richards’ novels to seek after freedom and withstand the pressure of their choices. Sydney submits to the good by submitting to Christian and Dantean love. Hatred is finite and love is infinite; love is unbounded, persisting even after death.

MacDonald and Craig provide a sophisticated take on Richards’ view of theodicy. Richards is not interested in the “problem of freedom.” Freedom is choice. Even though

external forces acting against human beings in these novels seem arbitrary, and, at best, indifferent to human life, Richards deliberately restricts the appearances of grace, or divine benevolence, so that when these moments appear they are all the more striking.

Considered another way, Richards’ novels show the perpetual loss of freedom. Speaking of the character Annette in Crimes Against My Brother, the narrator says: “But now the show was over. Her freedom such as it was, was complete. And the articles in Cosmo moved onto other things.” The title The Lost Highway also suggests a loss of the road, the road to freedom. As the authors explain, self-fulfillment in Richards is found, paradoxically, in acting freely through self-sacrificial love. Richards provides an antidote to the “regionalism” of the overlooked Miramichi region he describes, giving universality and accessibility to this world through an understanding of freedom.

This review “The Search for Freedom” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 163-164.

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