Jax Miller’s debut thriller Freedom’s Child remixes biker culture, religious cults, and criminal drama
Jax Miller’s debut thriller Freedom’s Child from Harper Collins remixes biker culture, religious cults, and criminal drama to deliver a fresh one-two punch of page turning fun. This is not a true crime thriller, instead it is at once an over-the-top redemption story, a rant against staunch conservatism, an elegy for parenthood, and a kidnapping mystery. Who took Freedom’s Child? If you are a fan of crime novels, action, and misunderstood anti-heroes chances are you will read through your lay-over, or spend the afternoon on the beach flipping pages to answer that very question.
Redemption, we love it when someone hits bottom, makes a profound change, and comes out the other end transformed. Freedom Oliver’s real name is Vanessa Delaney, and she’s in the witness protection program for killing her husband. She’s crude, rude, misunderstood, and drinks like a fish. She also speaks her mind, acts independently, and is emotionally tortured for giving up custody of her kids when she was briefly incarcerated for killing her husband. She’s stuck in Painter, Oregon, tending bar at a biker hangout, populated by colorful characters, notably Passion, a middle aged prostitute with a heart of gold.
Freedom’s hard to handle, goes on her nerve, and is socially unfit. There’s kind of an aw-shucks, don’t worry about her--that’s just Freedom being Freedom-- fish out of water humor that undercuts the emotional trauma of her rape at the hands of her brother-in-law, and the rippling shock of having given up her kids, which is what readers will find sympathetic, and endearing about the character.
When the action opens she’s broken and off her meds, just as her brother in law is released from prison, and when her daughter, Rebekah, disappears. Freedom framed her brother-in-law, Matthew, and he wants revenge. He’s good looking and evil, and belongs to a twisted family led by Lynn, an obese matriarch who gives new meaning to the word slovenly. The Delaney’s want Freedom to suffer for killing Mark, and framing Matthew, and needless to say as the plot unwinds the real killer of Mark is revealed as the twisted Delaney’s get their just desserts.
The real villains aren’t the Delaney’s however, Virgil Paul and his cult of ultra-conservative Third Day Adventists are the real face of banal evil. Virgil, and his stepford wife, Carol, have adopted Ethan and Layla, Freedom’s children, and have raised them in their compound, which over the years has grown more and more conservative, and creepy. Re-christened Mason and Rebekah, the children grow up under the bright lights of the revival ministry. As Virgil’s ministry grows, so does his capacity for evil. Mason longs for college and is ex-communicated for his desire for an education, but simple Rebekah stays, and is wrapped up in Virgil’s twisted plot. Early in the novel Rebekah vanishes from a biker bar near the compound, which sends Mason, and Freedom speeding back to Goshen, Kentucky to save their loved one. Of course Mason and Freedom aren’t aware of their concurrent searches for Rebekah, but eventually the knot of action brings them together. Freedom’s redemptive story is echoed in Mason’s sub-plots; all Mason wants to do is prove himself. Even Freedom’s love interest, Officer Mattley, has his own little redemptive plot line to fulfill as he is pulled into the action via Freedom’s self-destructive actions.
But the heart of the novel is the desire for family. Family, for the most part is presented as a perversion in the novel: The Delaneys, the Pauls, officer Mattley’s broken marriage, the Custis’s--innocent in-laws of the Pauls. All of these characters have either twisted family, or live with a broken one. The families that work, or at the very least show compassion, are the families made up of like-minded connections, or friendships: Passion and Freedom, Peter and Freedom, the Amalekite and Magdaline, the Native Americans, and of course Mattley and Freedom. For these characters family is something to cherish and love and protect. Don’t let the violence, sex, and blood fool you, what matters most to Freedom is family, and through the course of the novel she gets her chance to forge her own family through fire.
The plot is a loose tangled knot of people chasing Freedom, Freedom chasing her daughter, the feds chasing the pastor, Freedom chasing the pastor, the feds chasing Freedom, etc. The colorful characters play their tropes well, the rednecks, the bikers, the skinheads, the dopey US Marshals, the tough women, even the wise, visionary Native Americans. And for the most part Miller avoids cliche through Freedom’s raunchy but likeable voice, and plenty of sarcasm. It’s a darker, seedier, more gratuitously violent Stephanie Plum adventure, save Freedom is on the criminal side of the action. Freedom’s Child is a hard R, perhaps even (rated) MA for mature, as Miller delivers the goods on the grunge and the creep factor. There’s a more or less happy ending, depending how you take your thrills, and is a snappy read for beach fun, or airport layovers. Freedom’s Child is a strong debut from a new voice. You can practically hear the hard-rock soundtrack blaring over the roar of the motorcycles.