This isn’t necessarily a story that you will know.

Free Enterprise Michelle Cliff

Penguin Books, 1993

And nor are you expected to.

“We all know how history comes down to us, which stories, which versions tend to be passed on.”

But here, in Free Enterprise, in a novel, we might find another version of truth.

As Jessamyn West writes: “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.”

So it’s possible that readers will find things in Michelle Cliff’s novel that reality has obscured.

“The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between. It usually does.”

But even there, the narrator wonders whether anyone will have heard these women’s stories:

“In years to come, will anyone have heard them – our voices?”

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s story – her voice – might not be as readily recognizable as, say, John Brown’s.

And yet she played a vital role in his abolitionist activities. In fact, when he was arrested after the Harper’s Ferry incident, a note from her was found in his pocket.

The offer of her additional support was signed M.E.P. but the initials were misread as W.E.P. so she was not officially implicated in the events, although her involvement was well-known in the day, as was her work with the Underground Railroad.

The roots of resistance run deep, and Cliff’s prose is poetic, creating a mythic air to the story which reaches back in time.

“We wanted to avoid bloodshed, which bloodshed was becoming inevitable with our growing realization that these Englishmen did not simply wish to visit us, to ‘discover’ us, as they put it. They wanted to own us, and the islands, tame the landscape to their purposes, tame even the slopes of Kilauea. Now what would Pele have done about that? We had to save them from themselves, and us from them.”

Art plays a vital role in revolution.

“I was grateful that the artist had portrayed it thus, indicating the horror of the thing aslant, by these few members, and a reminder of their confinement, the irons which would take them down. It got to me, all right.”

But too often these fighters are left out of the history books, lost even to memory.

“I am drawn back into my own peculiar past. I look out over the blackness of the water, and find myself not on the high seas, heading for the Vineyard in 1874, but see a girl, as clear as day, a young woman, participant at Chatham, captivating. You. Listening to Mary Shadd Carey urge us on in the colored schoolhouse where so much of the planning took place. You in your mannish overalls, your face darkened, but you could not hide your eyes. Where are you now, Annie?”

Free Enterprise is a slim novel, made heavy with meaning.