Sunday, November 1, 2015

Out today! A Free Unsullied Land by Maggie Kast - Wonderful Historical Literary Fiction

Sweaty in the hot summer of '27. An execution is imminent, and the family has been dreading it for years. Henriette wakes to the sound of feet hurring along the hall outside her second-floor bedroom, then down the stairs and back up again. A thin, keening sound. Coughs and sobs. It's her old brother Carl, plagued by a nightmare.
Henriette was eight in 1920 when Nicola Sacco, a fishmonger, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a shoemaker, were convinced of robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, and she's grown up with this wound to her sense of hope and possibility. Wisps of adult conversation drifting above her head taught her the story. Now she lies rigid in her bed, as though her stillness could stop time, standing by while others face what may already have become disaster.
Father first assumed the two Italians were guilty. As followers of the anarchist Luigi Galleani, the men could be expected to plant bombs and murder anyone they considered a class enemy. Mother feared the jury was prejudiced against immigrants, workers, and all victims of the Red Scare then then roaring to life. The Attorney General had recently embarked on a round-up of those considered Red, chaining five hundred men together and marching them through the streets of Boston, then holding them without trial and eventually deporting them. Mother's dear friend and mentor, Jane Addams, had been attached as disloyal for her opposition to war...
As she [Henriette] she felt energized to protest. Her favorite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote to the governor of Massachusetts in a letter widely published, "I cry to you with a million voices, answer our doubt." Her poem, "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," was published on the front page of the New York Times. 


Let us abandon then our gardens and go home
And sit in the sitting room. 
Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under this cloud?
Sour to the fruitful seed
Is the cold earth under this cloud,
Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;
We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.

Let us go home, and sit in the sitting room.
Not in our day
Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,
Beneficent upon us
Out of the glittering bay,
And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea
Moving the blades of corn
With a peaceful sound.
Forlorn, forlorn,
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted 
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.

What from the splendid dead
We have inherited --
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued --
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.

Let us sit here, sit still,
Here is the sitting-room until we die; 
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children`s children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.

Millay was arrested along with Katherine Anne Porter and Dorothy Parker for demonstrating against the execution...


A Free Unsullied Land

By Maggie Kast

I think this is the first novel of this type written about the United States right before I was born...What saddened me most was that the issues may have been different, but the internal turmoil among America's citizens was just as strong...and wrong...

The main character , Henriette, seems to be telling the story herself, although the book is written in the standard third person. Henriette, stifled by her mother during her formative years, while being close to her father, who also received, and suffered, the strict life established, was anxiously waiting to flee her home. Readers will easily see her as an intelligent young girl, drawn to the arts, and in particular, poetry, so that those tender or angry words that may be written by older women and Black poets, sometimes formed against what was happening in the world in those days, helped to develop a desire to speak out, to learn and then act as others were doing...

But her youthful isolation from a world that she learned about through snatches of adult discussions, seemed far away--perhaps dangerous, especially for one so sheltered and isolated...

The novel is written in parts, so that we see portions of her life at certain ages. I found I enjoyed most the time when she was finally able to begin to get away from home, first to stay with her brother who was in college, and then to attend classes herself... Carl realized Henriette's need to begin to control her life, just as he had been doing, so he soon asked her to visit a bar where they could  hear Sachmo. Carl explained that it was a black-and-tan club--there's lots of them around here. They don't care if you're black, white, or homo for that matter. Come on"...

Henriette had an affinity toward Blacks, excited to be reading poetry created by fellow arts lovers. Now the music pulled her in and jazz was immediately taken into her soul...and began moving to it as she first learned to dance.

On the bandstand a seven-piece band tuned up...A white man in shirtsleeves and open collar entered from behind the bar and began to move through the crowd, shaking hands with everyone he passed. He made his way to the bandstand and embraced several of the musicians, who slapped him on the back. So it was all right for her to be here. The band began an upbeat piece about swing rhythm itself, making her feet tap.
"Swing that music," sang the vocalist, and Carl leaned over.
"That's him, that's Sachmo." The singer looked unassuming, medium height with chocolate-colored skin, but the voice was inviting and the smile, warm and engaging. She had expected a show-off type of performer, but Sachmo put the music ahead of himself. If only she could meet him and shake his hand!

He led her to the bed, pulled down the
covers and covered her up, then quickly
undressed himself. She lay stiff, feeling
cold and sweaty. Before he turned out the
light, he looked over at her, rubbed her
cheek with his knuckles and said, "Hey
girlfriend. Don't worry. It's just a bit of
...As Lucky pressed her closer, she
namedeach new perception...
He rolled on top of
her, and no words seemed suited to the
ridiculous situation in which her stony
body found itself, invaded. If she felt pain
she ignored it, but Lucky's ragged breathing
and accelerating pace, his convulsive climax,
his collapsed weight on her chest and the
slow trickle between her thighs made him
seem like an avatar of some ancient
creature, a throwback to times before
Victrola records or food in the fridge,
before art on the walls or books on the
shelves,,,she curled into a ball away from
Lucky and shed a few silent tears,
feeling used and unloved, then determined
to rise above this primitive level as far as
she could go, up and up...
The part that most impressed me about the novel is the meticulous research of what was happening during that time period. For those who enjoy historical novels and the discussions of the political climate during that period in history, I believe the novel brings a new and fresh perspective by seeing these events and time period through the eyes of a young girl growing up. 

The family chosen is Jewish, but has adopted the Unitarian Church and has very little to do with their heritage. The sad part for me was that Henriette either was told or realized that she was to not acknowledge that she was a Jew. 

Even when, later, she meets and becomes friends with a female classmate who invites her home for Thanksgiving, realizing as soon as she crossed the threshold that the Jewish religion would be celebrated, she did not break her silence...

Nor did she know how to handle the situation later, when her friend acknowledged she was a lesbian and now they could be closer friends, poor Henriette immediately said she understood all about it, referring to the books she read--the poetry written, including by her classmate... But when she was told the girl was talking about herself--her own thoughts and desires, Henriette was unable to respond to her, to acknowledge her as her friend.

Henriette had been so anxious to be "free" that she chose a number of wrong ways to do it. She had spit out a little ditty, "Seventeen years and she kept her viginity," singing and flirting with Lucky, a guy who had come to visit Carl, her brother, at his apartment. Carl had learned to cook exotic dishes that had never been near their home and Henriette was enjoying his making such efforts to learn about new foods...They had roast duck that night with traditional Chinese sides...

Soon after, however, Lucky took what she had saucily sang to him and Henriette now knew what could change you in one really important area.

She had awoken that unfortunate morning, in the chilly dawn, with the a quite different melody of a Mills Brother song playing in her head...

I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you. I'll be tickled to death when you leave this earth, you dog,"
Then, with a regal sense of triumph as she rose and dressed.
I'll be standing on a corner high
When they bring your body by
I'll be glad you're dead
You rascal you.

She had met Dilly when he was a TA for one of her classes... At that time she was studying to go into psychoanalysis while Dilly was studying anthropology. She'd thought she'd lost him when she pulled another of her stunts to see how he'd react when she brazenly remarked that she might go both ways... He had pulled away from her then...not understanding her desire to be seen as sophisticated really was resulting in choices she shouldn't make... The truth was that she continued to make wrong decisions, somehow making it through the results of those choices and becoming more mature as each was faced before moving forward...

The Depression, death, and all of the other fears and politics of the world went on until she and Dilly came together again and she began to take an interest in his work with Native Americans...
...Dilly was glad to see her happy and never questioned her abandonment of anthropology. Now when he talked about the Ghost Dance, the glowed  as much as he, thinking of the story growing inside her, already taking form on the page...

This epic novel shares the dream of living in a world where we are all free to be ourselves and still be connected...Would Henriette be able to find that free unsullied land...Perhaps...but not as most of us would have expected... But for those of us who want to know "who we are," Henriette carves the way to not only find ourselves, but the willingness to share it with others. Quite an accomplishment...Do check out this remarkable book...


After a lifetime career in modern dance, Maggie Kast received a Master of Theological Studies from Catholic Theological Union and began teaching, choreographing and performing liturgical dance. She received an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College in 2001 and has published fiction in The Sun, Carve Magazine, Kaleidoscope, Nimrod International, Paper Street and others. Her essays have appeared in America, Writer's Chronicle, Image and others. A chapter of her book, published in ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), won a Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council and a Pushcart nomination.