Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603
Free Enterprise recounts the lives and interactions of two women dedicated to the abolition of slavery and the very different outcomes of their involvement in the antislavery movement. The novel begins near Carville, Mississippi, in 1920. Annie Christmas lives near the riverbank in a house that appears to be slipping...
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- Critical Essays
Free Enterprise recounts the lives and interactions of two women dedicated to the abolition of slavery and the very different outcomes of their involvement in the antislavery movement. The novel begins near Carville, Mississippi, in 1920. Annie Christmas lives near the riverbank in a house that appears to be slipping into the river. The trees in front of her house are decorated with an odd assortment of ordinary bottles whose lingering aromas reawaken the past for Annie. She remembers her girlhood in the Caribbean, the first time she met Mary Ellen Pleasant (M.E.P.), and how she came to be named Annie Christmas.
The novel recounts the meeting of the two women at a lecture given in Boston. M.E.P. invites Annie to supper at a restaurant called Free Enterprise that is owned by a black fisherman and his wife. During the meal, M.E.P. suggests she take the name of Annie Christmas, a woman who had worked barges on the Mississippi River.
The story returns to Carville, Mississippi, and Annie’s involvement with a leper colony. The lepers of the colony join Annie in telling stories. These stories are oral histories that conflict with the official versions of history: They present historical events from different perspectives and with different facts than do standard accounts.
The novel then reproduces a letter sent by M.E.P. to Annie. M.E.P.’s letter recounts an unpleasant evening at Alice Hooper’s home. The occasion is the unveiling of a painting by the English artist Joseph Turner entitled “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On.” M.E.P., upset by the subject of the painting and the comments of other guests, abruptly leaves. The next morning, she receives a letter of apology from Miss Hooper. M.E.P. accepts the apology.
The incident at Alice Hooper’s home shifts the story line away from both M.E.P. and Annie, as the novel concentrates instead on Alice Hooper’s trip to Washington, D.C. She travels to the nation’s capital with her cousin Clover Hooper to see the Civil War victory celebrations and to visit places of historical importance. There, they meet a mysterious multiracial woman in the alley behind Ford’s Theatre. Clover asks to take her picture; the woman agrees. During preparations for the photograph, the women engage in a conversation in which the alley woman reveals that she is contraband and discloses details of her life. She knows how to read and has read many books. Clover and the woman talk of books and of women’s ability to escape into them.
The narrative shifts once more to M.E.P. and her journey to Martha’s Vineyard. It then digresses into M.E.P.’s life as a successful businesswoman in San Francisco and her ability to use the free enterprise system to save runaway slaves and fund abolitionist causes. Her parents’ lives are also detailed. M.E.P.’s father, Captain Parsons, was a dark-skinned boat captain who successfully transported contraband slaves, and her mother, Quasheba, was a gunsmith. M.E.P. recalls her involvement with John Brown and her sorrow over the failure of the raid on Harpers Ferry.
A series of letters concludes the story of the Hooper cousins. Clover commits suicide, and Alice dies a natural death. Annie recounts her years on a Confederate chain gang during the Civil War and her subsequent retreat to the seclusion of the riverbank. M.E.P. returned to San Francisco and the fight for freedom until she herself became a victim of prejudice.