Amos Fortune, Free Man

by Elizabeth Yates

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Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 918

When Amos first arrives in America, Caleb Copeland, a Quaker weaver, impulsively buys him at the Boston slave market. Caleb and his wife Celia oppose slavery and several times offer Amos his freedom. The Copeland children, especially Roxanna, help Amos overcome his shyness, and he becomes a part of their family. When Caleb Copeland dies, financial considerations force his family to sell Amos to Ichabod Richardson, a tanner. The Richardsons, too, treat Amos relatively well, and Ichabod Richardson eventually promises him freedom in exchange for payments into a trust fund set up for Mrs. Richardson. When Richardson dies, his wife signs a quitclaim, freeing Amos from the necessity of further payments, and offers him the chance to purchase the tanning business. In Jaffrey, New Hampshire, the Reverend Laban Ainsworth befriends Amos and welcomes the Fortune family to the community, renting them an acre of land for a tannery and organizing the neighbors to build a house for the family. Amos chooses the Reverend Ainsworth to write his epitaph.

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Amos's first two marriages result from his desire to help women who remind him of his crippled sister, Ath-mun. Amos works to buy and marry first Lily, the sickly slave of Jonathan Twombley, and then Lydia, a crippled seamstress and Josiah Bowers's slave. Each woman dies about a year after marrying Amos, but he hopes that freeing them will result in a sort of cosmic balance of kindness toward Ath-mun, if she needs it.

Amos's third wife. Violet, is younger and stronger than the other two. On November 9, 1779, Amos buys Violet and her daughter, Celyndia, from James Baldwin. Violet helps with the tanning business, and both she and Celyndia become skilled weavers. Amos gradually teaches them the meaning of freedom, and eventually Violet uses that freedom to make him reconsider his decision to use their life's savings to buy a home for Lois Burdoo, a widow whose family has remained poor despite the town's frequent assistance. After a sort of consultation with Monadnock Mountain, Amos acknowledges Violet's superior wisdom in this instance and uses the money to buy land and ensure his own family's financial security.

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Although there are several free black people in the various towns where Amos lives, Yates depicts only the Burdoo family in any detail. They serve primarily as a contrast to Amos and his family. Moses and Lois Burdoo lack the perseverance and thrift that characterize Amos and Violet. Even before Moses's death, the Burdoos are poorly clothed and fed, and after his death the town must assist the family. Finally the two oldest children, Polly and Moses, are included in the annual auction in which the town pays the lowest bid for a year's food and clothing, and the bidder is entitled to the individual's work for that year. Amos offers a ridiculously low bid so that Polly will have a year's freedom with the Fortune family, and Moses ends up indentured to Joseph Stewart, a fair man but a stern disciplinarian. Amos hires the younger son, Philip, to help in the tannery.

Throughout Amos Fortune: Free Man, Yates develops the theme of respect for nature as exemplified by the At-mun-shi way of life. The villagers fight only to remain free and kill only for food, burning the entrails to make amends to the spirit of the prey. Each spring they temporarily discard their weapons to celebrate the earth's rebirth. Amos retains their gesture of reverently kissing the ground, long after he has forgotten all At-mun-shi words except his own name, At-mun. Likewise, his affection for Monadnock Mountain, which looms over Jaffrey, and his ability to predict the weather reflect his continued kinship with nature.

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The book's foremost theme is the importance of individual freedom. The son of a chief, Amos is a prince until his abduction. He understands that his role as a prince is to serve his people, not to rule their lives. He values his own freedom and that of others. Much later, Amos refuses to accept manumission (freedom) papers until he possessed sufficient skills to guarantee his economic independence as well. Even before he is free, he saves his money to buy the freedom of his sister Ath-mun—should she ever turn up on a slave ship in the Boston harbor—and then of women who remind him of her. In addition, Amos considers poverty and disgrace another kind of slavery, so he takes in a free black girl, Polly Burdoo, when her family cannot afford to keep her.

Despite his good works and his skill as a tanner, Amos remains humble. He remembers that he was a prince in Africa, but after living in submission as a slave for forty-five years and converting to the Christianity of his white masters, he learns to view God as his ruler. He always holds his head high, exhibiting self-respect, and he responds nonviolently to racial slights. He takes great pride in his craftsmanship and remains sensitive to the feelings of others. As a result, Amos wins the respect and trust of everyone he encounters. Of all the characters in the novel, he understands most fully how to live by Christian and democratic ideals.

Through Amos's nobility of character, Yates develops the themes of responsibility, self-respect, and concern for nature and individuals. Resourceful and courageous, he approaches even the most mundane task with enthusiasm and creativity. Yates explores the more complex aspects of his personality through extensive details about his hopes, fears, frustration, and mistakes. Amos emerges as a well-developed and believable character.

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