Book review: ‘The Eden Hunter'

“The ship follows the coast of Spanish Florida, tacking against the Gulf Stream. At the wharf in Pensacola the Africans are scrubbed clean. The Pygmy has worn the same vine belt, the same foul scrap of oiled barkcloth, since the death of his people. He is stripped naked, and the crew realizes at last that he is no boy. They force open his mouth, then recoil at the sight of his cut teeth, the canines and incisors that have been filed into sharp points.”

Meet Adam, the diminutive hero of “The Eden Hunter,” Skip Horack’s impeccably crafted novel about one man’s search for freedom in a country still striving to define the term.

The time is 1816. The place, former Indian territory and a wilderness stretch of coastal Florida dense enough to hide runaway slaves. The people, a ragtag collection of American originals fighting to regain their basic human rights during the days when independence didn’t always mean yours, unless your skin happened to be white.

Known as Kau -- “the Leopard” -- in his native Africa, Adam’s idyllic life in the Ituri Forest ended when his wife and children were killed in a tribal war and his captors sold him to Spanish traders. As the story opens, he has already laid plans to escape his master, an innkeeper in the Mississippi territory, and has his sights set on Spanish-ruled Florida, rumored to be a haven where blacks can live free.

Traveling down the coast toward freedom, Adam encounters a gantlet of characters, all of whom test his ability to survive -- a murderous band of Creek Indians called Red Sticks; a family of ex-slaves who casually recapture Adam and become his new “owners”; and the outrageous Garcon, a Creole general who spouts verses from “Paradise Lost” and has a taste for French food and young girls.

At first, Adam travels alone, mostly at night, hiding by day under his dugout that resembles a rotting log. When he meets up with the renegade Creeks, who are impressed by his sharpened teeth and ability to speak their language, they guide him through land once theirs, now property of the U.S. government, toward his destination.

Horack conjures a landscape alternately brutal and nearly magical, a twilight world not quite tamed by the white men yet already threatened by extinction -- a dappled jungle of wild parakeets and carrier pigeons, still infused with the spirituality and culture of the fast-vanishing Indians.

The details of this forgotten time are rendered with such skill that it rises up around us, a vivid tapestry alive with the smoke “of tobacco cut with sumac” from the Indians’ pipes or the sudden appearance of a Creek grandmother in the woods trapping tortoises to survive: “Her lined face was the color of dark cedar, and she was wearing only moccasins and a faded British redcoat decorated with broken pieces of mirror.”

Eventually, Adam stumbles onto a farming community along the Apalachicola River where close to a thousand fugitive slaves have settled outside a garrison called the “Negro Fort.”

Their leader, Garcon, a black Jack Sparrow in braids and a tricorn hat, has no intention of letting the U.S. government return the runaways to their masters. As American forces gather and Garcon prepares to fight back with his community of “warrior farmers,” Adam will have to strike a hard bargain if he is to remain free and re-enter his Eden at last.

Horack’s story is based on actual events. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, the British abandoned a fort above the Apalachicola along with hundreds of ex-slaves and Creek and Choctaw Indians once recruited to fight American forces.

This peaceful community of mixed races, joined by other slaves seeking sanctuary, presented a grave threat to Southern planters who feared the loss of their unpaid work force. When Spain refused to turn the fugitives over to the United States, then-Gen. Andrew Jackson, ignoring its sovereignty, invaded Florida and attacked the fort.

A Louisiana native, Horack attended Florida State University and spent time in Apalachicola, where he was inspired by the remains of the Negro Fort, renamed Fort Gadsden. He is the author of a prize-winning collection of stories, “The Southern Cross” (2009), and now teaches fiction at Stanford University.

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