Just Another Word
First Novel Defies Categorization
by Linda L. Richards
Freedom's Just Another Word
has some recipes
in it, but it's not a cookbook. The main characters are all
women, but it's not women's fiction. The book
is stylishly written, but I wouldn't call it literary
fiction, and though a lot of the action takes place in jail
and on the lam, it's not crime fiction either. Some of the
action centers around a murder that takes place in
flashbacks and we're never really sure whodunit, yet the
book is not a mystery.
While I read Freedom's Just Another Word, I
kept trying to categorize it. It beat me. It doesn't belong
in a category. And while that might be making the book a
tough sell, it doesn't stop it from being a wonderful
The story is told by Maggie Hoffer, residing in a women's
maximum security prison when the book opens, pondering the
suicide of her husband, a biker known to just about everyone
as Mongrel. Hamilton gets the reader's attention in the
book's opening paragraphs:
One day my husband, Mongrel, walks
upstairs from the basement into the kitchen, where I'm
making brownies. He points a gun at my head and tells me
to sit down at the table. So I do. Then he tells me that
everything's a total fuck-up and we might as well both be
I'm not arguing, that's for sure, especially with a gun
pointing right at me. I mean, he's a great shot and
everything, but what if he misses and I end up with brain
damage or something? I'm a vegetable for the rest of my
life. I ask him if he wants a brownie.
"Mags, are you seriously asking me if I want a brownie?"
"Well, they're right out of the over, the way you like
them," I say.
"I'm pointing a gun at your head and all you can think
about are brownies?" he says, shaking his head. "I gotta
wonder sometimes how we ever lasted as long as we
"You're just having a bad day, Mongrel," I say.
"No, Mags, I'm having a bad life," he says. Then he turns
the gun around, points it at his chest, and pulls the
In jail for murdering her husband, Maggie meets a
beautifully drawn set of characters. Sam and Darlene are the
lesbians in the next cell, and Maggie feels a special
affinity for Sam: in some ways the woman reminds her of her
Mongrel would shit a brick if he knew I
was friends with them. He had a real problem with
same-sex sex. For him, life was simple -- meat and
potatoes, beer and baseball, and men screwing from on
top, mostly. End of story.
Maggie's cell mate -- Big Dee -- is a six-foot tall black
woman who does manicures. And Stella is native and burns
sage to cleanse the energy in her cell: when she isn't chain
Author Dakota Hamilton's narrative -- via Maggie -- is clean
and inspiring. It's hard not find yourself drawn to a place
you never wanted to go, and meeting people you never thought
you'd want to meet. And as interesting a trip as the reader
may find it, Maggie's having none of it. She chafes at her
loss of freedom, and soon finds herself hatching a plan to
escape. Before long, the other women on her unit are part of
it and they start a 12-step program to give them room to
breathe and talk in private while they plot. Feelings
Anonymous is a cover for Freedom
WE ADMITTED THAT WE WERE POWERLESS OVER OUR INCARCERATION
AND THAT OUR LIVES HAD BECOME UNMANAGEABLE.
And so it goes, the plot to freedom becoming more
tangible as they follow their program.
While they plot, we learn more about Maggie and the life she
had before her husband's death. We see the gentle and loving
side of dope-dealing, drug-smuggling Mongrel as well as
other facets less attractive.
And every so often -- like weird but effective punctuation
-- a recipe cuts the narrative.
The prison's penchant for serving boiled chicken leads
Maggie to thinking about chicken preparation, and thoughts
of comfort foods lead to recipes for fudge and rice pudding.
The recipes don't make you want to cook (well, they didn't
make me want cook) but they do add to the
cadence and rhythm of the book. They also look very much
like they'd work if you made them: though I don't really
think that's the point.
Again with the attempt at categorization: Freedom's
Just Another Word is very funny in places, but it's
not a comedy. Sometimes it's touching and heartwarming, but
it's not a feel-good story. But for all of the things the
book isn't, there's one very important thing that it
is: an absolutely compelling read. Start to
finish and with never a foot wrong, Hamilton's first novel
is stunning. | September 10, 1998
is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several novels.