Second Story Press
From the title (taken from the song “Me and Bobby McGee”) to her unexpected stop in Saskatoon in 1970 and the journey Easy Merritt takes to meet up with her idol, Janis Joplin is the soundtrack for Caroline Stellings’ latest young adult novel, Freedom’s Just Another Word. And what a soundtrack it is: earthy, guttural, soulful and rich with the blues.
But when she sang–oh, when she sang–that tempered-in-a-forge voice of hers was like a flame in this burned-out world. You ’d have to be stone deaf or a cadaver not to be electrified by her; she could sound as smooth as the Southern Comfort that dribbled from the corners of her mouth, or as gritty as sandpaper. And the way she clutched every stanza like it was her last made me shake with anticipation. (pg. 1)Though her name might suggest otherwise, growing up half-black–the product of her black father’s affair with a white prostitute named Wendy Wood–in Saskatoon has not been comfortable for Easy (Louisiana) Merritt. She may be good at car mechanics like her father but she wants to sing the blues, and the two venues in town, Saskatoon Blues and The Beehive are not willing to give her a chance. So Easy saves her money from working at the garage and singing in front of the liquor store, playing her accordion and frottoir, for the chance to get out. Her break comes after a fortuitous meeting with the great Janis Joplin when the Festival Express train stops for a booze run in Saskatoon and Easy helps the singer get a bottle of her much-loved Southern Comfort liqueur and earns an invitation to meet up with her in Austin, Texas the following week. So, Easy begins her pilgrimage, accompanying two nuns, the upbeat Sister Beatrice and the sour postulant Marsha, whom she’d assisted in purchasing a used car, on their journey to a mission in Albuquerque from which Easy could head to Texas.
Like any road trip, Easy’s is a mixture of highs and lows, and more so in 1970 when the civil rights movement is struggling to get a foothold in both Canada and the US, and an eighteen-year-old girl of black and white parentage isn’t always tolerated, much less accepted. And travelling the famous Route 66, a.k.a. The Mother Road, a road in the process of being retired for the faster, more direct I-40, foreshadows some mother issues with which Easy must grapple to understand herself and others better, if she is to make a success of herself.
Like her Geoffrey Bilson Award-nominated book The Manager (Cape Breton University Press, 2013), Freedom’s Just Another Word is a story based in the 1970s, a time often disregarded in much historical fiction. But it’s an important time of change, with respect to civil rights and opportunities for women, and Caroline Stellings composes a story that is both embedded in the time yet universal in its themes of acceptance, tolerance, and family. By taking Easy on a journey both spatially from Saskatoon to Albuquerque and Texas and back, and emotionally as she struggles with acknowledgement of her own family’s secrets and story, Caroline Stellings creates an alluring, cross-country excursion of the soul and heart which ends with finding enlightenment, sometimes closer to home than you might expect.