The day the Civil War ends, Sam, a liberated slave in Philadelphia, decides to walk to Mississippi.
It's time, he decides, to find his wife, whom he last saw 15 years before. He's told his decision isn't practical. He leaves anyway.
Leonard Pitts Jr., author of the historical novel "Freeman," said Sam is based on the thousands of Americans, black and white, who chose to act on their best intentions after Appomattox.
"If you're thinking just practically, it's not the smartest thing to do," Pitts said. "But taking leaps of faith is what the novel is about."
To Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, "Freeman" dramatizes the same period detailed in "Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery," a 1979 study of Reconstruction by historian Leon Litwack. That book charted the post-Civil War period that, Pitts believes, remains obscure to many.
"We have this version of American history in which the war ends and the slaves pretty much disappear from history books until Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education," Pitts said.
Many newly freed slaves journeyed hundreds of miles, looking for displaced or sold-off spouses, children and siblings, Pitts said. "They placed advertisements in newspapers, or had letters written for them," he said. "And they walked - which to me is the most poignant thing."
At the Library of Congress, not far from his Bowie, Md., home, Pitts sought archived newspapers and individual journals, not only to immerse himself in the struggles of the time but also the vernacular. His work was largely complete when he happened to see the 2010 version of "True Grit," which made a point of showcasing the often-formal frontier dialogue re-created by author Charles Portis in his 1968 novel.
"Some people back then were less likely to speak in contractions," Pitts said. So he took many contractions out of his manuscript. "It made it seem more authentic."
While Pitts finds the continuing observances of the war's 150th anniversary interesting and appropriate, he makes no effort to hide his exasperation with what he believes is a widespread reluctance to acknowledge the role slavery played in the conflict.
"Americans are appallingly willing to change history for their own purposes," Pitts said.
"There was a Time magazine piece that said about 50 percent of Americans dispute that slavery was the war's prime cause. That's amazing, because when you look at the primary sources, there was no doubt in the minds of many as to what they were fighting about.
"Now there is this fiction that the Civil War was all about states' rights. We just sort of slide by, mythologizing our own history with nary a care in the world.
"It's hypocritical, sad and potentially tragic."
By Leonard Pitts Jr.