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Set Me Free    by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore order for
Set Me Free
by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2007 (2007)

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore sets her compelling and emotive contemporary work of fiction in autumn 1996 through spring 1997, with chapters sliding between cast members, converging in between and at the end of the story. Central to the narrative is Calbert Fleecing, a Native American of the Neige Courante reservation in Stolen, Oregon. Cal begins the story in the prologue reaching back and forth through the years until the present, exposing to the reader his ambivalent emotions regarding the whites.

Cal is nurtured by his Maw-Maw, who teaches him the meaning of 'Our Way which is the Human Way'. He never knew his mother, and learns his father's identity at age seven. His father, a Neige Courante lawyer named Jasper Francoeur, comes forward after Maw-Maw's death to fund Cal's education at Harvard, where he graduates summa cum laude. Seventeen years after Harvard, Cal is back at the reservation, where he assists Elliot Barrow in establishing the Ponderosa Academy. From Assistant Headmaster Cal's bitter perspective, Elliot is 'arrogant, strong-headed, and blind ... and has allowed the school to grow recklessly and without a plan'. Confronting the elders' council, Cal perceives that his people only view him as a storyteller, 'while Elliot gains power'.

Elliot lectures about why he started Ponderosa Academy and 'his dream to change things so these kids can go to the best colleges in the nation'. But Elliot harbors secrets, involving his daughter Amelia, who has always believed that her mother Astrid died when she was born. Befriended and betrayed by fellow student Wesley Hazzard, Amelia pleads with her father to return to Stolen from a boarding school in Maine. In Oregon, Amelia rekindles her friendship with Lydia Cinqchevaux and with childhood friend Victor Littlefoot, recently returned by his mother to Stolen to care for his grandmother, but mainly to save him from Chicago's drug scene.

In 1984, scriptwriter and director Helen Bernstein and her husband Duncan Reilly founded an off-Broadway theater in Lower East Side Manhattan. In the dark wings of the theater, Helen 'saw Duncan with another woman ... the truth about these last twelve years, in all their sweetness and cruelty, and this seeing set her free.' A phone call from ex-husband Barrow asking for names to direct a Shakespeare production at Ponderosa stirs memories Helen thought long gone and buried. Helen offers to travel to Oregon to direct The Tempest at the academy. Her arrival arouses mixed feelings from Cal, surprises for Amelia, and chaos in the Barrow circle.

High school student Willa Llewellyn lives with her father Nat in New Milford, Connecticut, where she thrives in her love of photography. All these years, Willa was told that her mother had died when she was a born. She accepted her father's frequent need to change locations and his palpable air of secrecy. The time comes for Nat and Willa to journey to Oregon to fulfill a promise he made to Caroline on her deathbed many years ago. As they travel west, Willa learns more of her mother's death, the reasons for her father's need to keep a promise. So the circle comes around for another attachment to Elliot Barrow's world.

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore uses the last words of Shakespeare's The Tempest for her book title, Set Me Free. She depicts race and social class, hatred and love, lies and truth, devastation and restoration. Her work is judicious and captivating with profound messages, while the reader luxuriates in descriptions that create an almost-there sensation. Her inspiring voice soars on eagle's wings, dealing with human faults and frailties, the shattering of mind and heart, and - as the physical-being becomes 'a pile of ashes' - showing how the human spirit lives on. The author focuses on the dynamics of confrontations between a father and daughter who are close but need to develop trust; another father's attempts to tell his daughter the truth about her mother's heinous background; and a boy grown to manhood, well-educated, carrying angst towards whites, while dealing with self-hatred. Set Me Free is one of my best reads to date in 2007.

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