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Reviews of Return to Freedom

In real estate it's LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. In a book it's STORY, STORY, STORY. This most recent novel by indie writer, Alec Clayton, is a successful sequel to The Backside of Nowhere. The sequel, Return To Freedom, follows the mix of characters some years later and takes us into their lives. Contemporary issues are believably woven into the everyday struggles of these people. Clayton has created people who deserve another book -- a trilogy -- to round out their lives.
Meantime, kick back for a good read. - Penelope Merrell "pennyart" (L.A., California),

I learned to love the characters and the feeling of Alec Clayton's southern world in his earlier book set in Freedom, Mississippi. Return to Freedom begins with the approach of violent hurricane bearing down on the town from the Gulf. Clayton's description of that storm and its destruction is done with drama and beauty. You can feel it. Clayton's people grow on you as you, the reader, are brought into the family of characters making up his world.For me,a northerner who has had experience in the rural south, it was like being back there again, sitting on a big swing with 4 seats and spending time visiting with friends, drinking iced tea and feeling the breeze through the cottonwood trees. The book is not all sweetness and light, however. Clayton's description of Sonny Staples as a reformed criminal turned preacher is powerful and perceptive and cautionary. His fall and decline into madness is a warning against the dangers of religion mixed with ignorance. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" and that may be even more true in the realm of religion. Clayton has dealt with homosexuality in all his novels but never better than in the inchoate recognition of that fact in the relationship of Marcia and Beulah. It is handled with extreme sensitivity,a genuine celebration rather than a source of discomfort either for the characters or for the reader. - Ricker Winsor "Rembrandt",
Return to Freedom is Alec Clayton's best novel yet, and it reads as if he felt supremely comfortable writing it. His writing is unflinchingly honest and his characters are as true to real life as one can get, yet with a fictional tinge of tragedy that is moving and unsentimental. This sequel to The Back Side of Nowhere is a must read if one has read that earlier novel. - L.E. Johnson (Raleigh, NC), author of Veins,
In Alec Clayton’s sequel to The Backside of Nowhere, we find ourselves in the bayous of the South after a storm ravaged the town of Freedom, Mississippi. The town has been rebuilt to a degree and three families have come back and they move into a new condo. Now, I know what a hurricane can do having lived through Katrina but what these three families deal with makes a storm look like a rain shower. Sonny Staples (a hat off to Mittens?—knowing the author’s writing I don’t think so) and Malcolm Ashton who we met in the earlier novel and were once teen trouble are now older (middle-aged). Sonny is an evangelical preacher who likes the women and Malcolm works in a grocery and tries to take care of his alcoholic wife and raise his three children. Beulah Booker Taylor is the third and she is having a bit of trouble with defining her sexual orientation. Before we realize it, the domestic winds gather strength and a storm like no one has ever seen before is heading right for the condos.

What I really like about reading Clayton is the way he introduces us to his characters and they develop before our eyes. While he is no longer a southerner, he still has the southern knack for telling a good story with a broad cast of characters. You can almost feel the humidity as you read and as the temperature rises so does the carrying-on. I can certainly say that his depiction of the storm wrought by nature is perfect and a delight to read and as I read, so many memories returned to me. I must also admit that I was reminded of some of the stories in the Hebrew Bible, the Five Books of Moses, by reading about the dysfunctional people here. If you ever have wondered why some people get so caught up in daytime television dramas, you will soon understand as you read and face the life that the characters here face. There is a lot going on and while sometimes you do not see how everything ties together, you just need a little patience. However, the ending is open which leads me to believe that the story is not over yet and the writer is most probably working on a sequel.

Clayton gives us a look at life in the South that is not the way we usually read about things. The idea that the story basically revolves around the changes that occurred because of the storm is perfect and I remain surprised that so few books have been written about it. Since I have moved north, I am constantly surprised how little people really know about Katrina especially with all of the media coverage and the passage of blame from one to another. Even more interesting is that, in Boston, at least, people want to know and Clayton has provided me with something I can recommend—a work of fiction based on fact that shows us the storm by taking us through the lives of his characters. The title is also perfect in that as our characters return to freedom, they are aware of the high price they have to pay. - Amos Lassen, Reviews by Amos Lassen
Just finished reading Return to Freedom and feel like I've visited a place I've never been and met some people I'd like to meet in my real life. Alec Clayton succeeds in bringing the story's characters alive. Humanly flawed as they are, he exposes their weaknesses, their struggles and strengths, and ultimately makes the reader believe in their authenticity and likeability.

The location of the story is the small, fictional town of Freedom, Mississippi. More than a backdrop, this Gulf Coast bayou community is an integral part of Clayton's novel. Its setting, atmosphere, colorful history, and the devastating impact of a recent hurricane are described convincingly, in a way that only someone who has lived in the South would be able to do.

So now I am wondering when we can look forward to the NEXT sequel? Actually, this book is already a follow-up to one of Clayton's previous novels, The Backside of Nowhere. Though each book stands perfectly well on its own, read them BOTH. Then keep your fingers crossed for the publication of the "final" sequel! - Becky Knold (Olympia, WA),
Return to Freedom takes up where Clayton's earlier novel, The Backside of Nowhere, left off. The hurricane that hits the Mississippi Gulf Coast town of Freedom sets the plot in action, as the author follows a wide variety of characters ranging from a Hollywood movie star to a pedophile lay preacher in the local Holy Roller church. Some of the writing is Clayton at his best, particularly the scenes surrounding the hurricane and its immediate aftermath. Just about everyone is dysfunctional to some degree - which makes for great storytelling - and the soap opera that is the lives of Freedom's residents keeps the pages turning. However, plotwise there are too many story threads to ground the novel to the point where one can say "Ah, it's primarily this person's story"; different readers will possibly find one of the three primary plotlines more compelling than the other two. The central characters are all fairly open-minded and liberal, without the benefit of college educations, and that seems a bit of a stretch at times. Since Katrina, Gulf Coast writers in particular have used that event as a starting point for their fiction, and anyone who enjoyed Alec Clayton's story might also want to check out Frederick Barthelme's Waveland and Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones for different takes on how the locals deal with the tragedy. Return to Freedom overall is a good read, and the open ending can perhaps lead to a sequel. - Anthony J. Adam (Houston, TX),
Return to Freedom is Alec Clayton's newest novel and sequel to his 2009 release, The Backside of Nowhere.

The book centers on the town of Freedom, Mississippi: a bayou backwater that maintains a liberal attitude and history in contrast to the surrounding Deep South. The story opens with a hurricane destroying many of the buildings in Freedom. What follows is how the community survives the aftermath of the natural disaster. The residences have to redefine themselves in the wake of the many forms of loss each character experiences.

Clayton shines in Return with his ability to delve into the dynamic relationships between characters making each of them truly part of the community.

After the initial hurricane ruins a number of homes, David Lawrence, a movie star son of the town patriarch, heads a rebuilding campaign that includes the Don Booker Condominiums. It is at the condo that the majority of our characters collide. The Ashton Family, A mixed race couple struggling with the realization that their children are growing up. Buelah Booker, a single mother who questions her sexuality. And the Staples, Sonny and Bonnie.

Sonny is the most intriguing character as he is a past misfit convict turned evangelical religious fanatic. The character starts out harmless enough and even charming when he is helping save the Ashton's house cat from a tree. As Sonny's story progresses the reader gets tangled into his conflicting beliefs. Sonny spouts bible verse out the context and without much understanding. He drinks while driving and maintains a cabin outside of town for extramarital trysts. Sonny's charisma is so powerful that at times he is downright frightening.

There is an entire town of wonderfully conflicted characters, too many to outline here. The reader will have fun watching them grow around each other.

The town of Freedom becomes very real on the page and one can tell that Clayton sees every location intimately. Clayton knows every detail from the street signs to what cigarettes that Bo, the night cook at the diner, is smoking. This gives the effect that we are truly emerged in his world.

During part of the narrative the pacing is a little unusual and that can cause the reader to take pause. There are large gaps in the time line as well as a few moments of disjointed retrospect. At first are a bit jarring, but once the reader gets in sync with the rhythm of the story telling, one is able to pick up where Clayton wants you to and story regains its momentum.

The location of the story is the small, fictional town of Freedom, Mississippi. More than a backdrop, this Gulf Coast bayou community is an integral part of Clayton's novel. Its setting, atmosphere, colorful history, and the devastating impact of a recent hurricane are described convincingly, in a way that only someone who has lived in the South would be able to do.

So now I am wondering when we can look forward to the NEXT sequel? Actually, this book is already a follow-up to one of Clayton's previous novels, The Backside of Nowhere. Though each book stands perfectly well on its own, read them BOTH. Then keep your fingers crossed for the publication of the "final" sequel! - Joshua Swainton (Tacoma, WA),
Clayton's new novel -- is a welcome return to the dramatic, stifling and at times destructive world of small town of Freedom, Mississippi first seen in his book Backside of Nowhere.

Clayton adroitly portrays the inner thoughts of central characters Bitsey and Malcolm, and I especially liked his treatment of the poor yet wise middle-aged mother Bitsey. It's not easy for a male author to pull off a female character with this level of insight, and I credit Clayton's long marriage for giving him some of this insight.

The treatment of Malcolm is equally satisfying, although I found the way Justin (their son) dies to be less dramatic than it should have been: in fact, I almost missed the death, and had to go back to find it. In the end, this death reverberates in interesting ways through the novel, and only the initial moment threw me.

Clayton's treatment of Sonny Staples and Beulah Booker Taylor is a little less satisfying for me, especially since Beulah's orientation and her struggle with it is obvious to the reader far before Beulah herself owns up.

However, Clayton wraps up the complicated threads of the various stories with a sure hand. Clayton has mastered the task of getting inside his characters' heads: Return to Freedom could use a bit more plot momentum, and structural editing to hone the tale to a tighter storyline, but overall it is a very satisfying read. - Ned D. Hayes (Olympia, WA), author of Couer D'Alene Waters,
What I like about Return to Freedom is what I have always liked about Alec Clayton's novels, but in this book I like it even more. Return to Freedom should be especially satisfying to fans of The Backside of Nowhere, returning as it does to the anything-but-sleepy Gulf Coast village of Freedom, Mississippi, and allowing us to follow the lives of some of the characters we learned to care about in that novel. In fact, the cast of characters is so large and various that it's hard to suggest them all or do justice to the way they interact in a short review.

One such character is Red Warner, the wild painter first memorialized in Until the Dawn, who has made a life for himself under his original name, Travis Warner, setting up his house and a ragtag set of tin-roofed docks and sheds on the waterfront, and we get to follow his life as a human after his meteoric and catastrophic career as a painter.

As the book opens, a hurricane is bearing down. Most of the inhabitants are going but some are staying. One of the ones who stays is Justin Ashton, and that leads to one of the things I like about Clayton's novels. I'm on record as saying that they somehow get at how life really behaves, not our shopworn ideas of how it behaves. Not to be a spoiler, but when Justin gets washed away by the storm, he does not pop up later, a "surprise" in the plot, having survived by improbable means.

One of the major heroes--if that's the right word to use--of the early story is Justin's mother, one Bitsey Ashton. She and her family live in a trailerhouse, and if that sounds about right, you're stereotyping. Bitsy's meditations on life, religion, and morality while the family flees northward, interacting with many other characters from the town and its surroundings, give the early going a lot of its backbone. Bitsey is no stereotype. She may not be at the top of the social ladder, but she thinks. Nor is she the only one: Her husband Malcolm "believes in a higher power, but not the kind of a God most of the folks he knows seem to worship." He finds the notion of man made in the image of God far less likely than a God made in the image of man. There are some good ideas in the Bible, he thinks, such as "Thou shalt not kill" and "Love thy neighbor as thyself," but heaven and hell and a bearded old sky-god strike him as ridiculous.

Throw in a dalliance between Molly Ashton (one of Bitsey's daughters) after they get back, a romance between a black football star who has decided NOT to go pro and Bitsy's daughter Jamie Lew, a dalliance between Sonny Staples, by most people's lights a no-good womanizing "youth preacher" with a criminal past, a dalliance that is thought by some to have been rape and by others to have been elopement, and whose denouement is strangely neither, and uncountable other storms and transformations of behavior, and what you have is an excellent and readable novel which delights you not with the expected satire but with the entirely human responses of the members of its roiling cast. What you have is a book that tells it like it is without being strident, and finds gentle but direct humor in all the oddball doings of its characters. Clayton delivers characters, not caricatures. - Jack A. Butler "hontonoshijin" (Eureka, CA), author of Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock and Jujitsu for Christ,
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