A Free, Unsullied Land by Maggie Kast,
2015, Fomite Press
The novel opens in 1927 in the wide world and in the Greenberg household simultaneously. The protagonist, Henriette Greenberg, is the daughter of Jewish parents who have adopted Unitarianism, the better to live the dream of leafy suburban Oak Park, Illinois. By 1930, Henriette, weary of playing second fiddle to twin brothers explicitly preferred by their parents; tired of her controlling, conventional mother; and sickened by her father's secret, prurient interest in her body, will be more than ready for freedom when she enrolls at the University of Chicago, hoping to escape from her stultifying family.
At the opening, Kast presents the Sacco and Vanzetti trial as a way to show the deep emotional effect it has on Henriette as a girl. We find that her consciousness is much broader and more sophisticated than we expect a teen-aged heroine's to be. "As she entered adolescence she felt energized to protest. Her favorite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote to the governor of Massachusetts…Henriette read the papers and learned about the IWW, International Workers of the World, a leader of the movement to free the two men. She rolled the organization's nickname around in her mouth, 'Wobbly, wobbly,' and read about anarchists and Bolsheviks."
Hyde Park, home of the University, is the dream opposite of Henriette's life in staid Oak Park. She studies poetry and is fascinated by anthropology—and by her T.A., Dilly Brannigan, who becomes her lover. Her brother Carl, a medical student, helps introduce her to the the fast life of jazz, leftist ideas, and interracial milieux. He also introduces her to a friend who rapes her, deepening the sexual trauma her father has already inflicted.
To give a precis of the novel's direction, though, doesn't give a glimmer of the author's ambition in telling the story of Henriette's passage from an intellectually advanced girl stumbling toward some undefined wish for more in life, to a young women satisfied that she has found her emotional direction, avocation in art, and—with the help of analysis—some resolution to her sexual dysfunction. Kast manages to portray Henriette from beginning to end as the work in process that youth has to be, sparing the reader neither the of the heights nor the sloughs nor the carnal necessities that our protagonist must experience in the development of judgment, purpose, and identity.
Kast allows her characters' mistakes to appear without comment and for the characters to live with the consequences--often unresolved--of their actions. As a result of this unsentimental authorial approach, readers' reactions to Henriette are sure to wax and wane. While in a committed relationship with Dilly, she sleeps with another man and suffers the guilt she brings on herself. Her romantic commitment to leftist/Communist ideals lead her to undertake ill-conceived risks. She travels unannounced, alone, and unplanned to Scottsboro, Alabama during the protests over the trials of the so-called Black rapist. She ends up in jail and returns to Chicago in disillusionment, frightened to tell anyone what she's done: "No way could she stand up against spit, hands that wrote death threats, or marauding mobs. On the ground, mouth filled with grit, she'd cared only about saving her own skin." No way she could take responsibility for her own actions when she returns, and it leaves a sour taste in our mouths. We want her to be a heroine, but she just wants to suppress the episode. Though she helps a friend while she's in Scottsboro, the trip is a jejune excursion, not a courageous civil rights action. We are the ones who have to look at it realistically: She's no heroine, but a girl who put herself in danger.
This gives a clue about why we are able to live with the slow growth of Henriette's judgment even when, as an anthropology researcher on an Apache reservation toward the satisfactory conclusion, she shockingly betrays an ancient taboo.
Because Kast provides such rich detail about a period of great social ferment, she reinforces the challenges Henriette faces in getting her moral bearings. Kast shows us a world in which nearly every aspect of life is in upheaval. It's not by accident that she set her novel when she did: The economic depression; questioning of the limitations on women; the loosening sexual mores—and the confusion all of these brought—had to make it difficult to feel certain in one's judgment about many things. And of course it's not hard to relate to from 2016.
Kast gracefully includes details that could go so badly or seem so intrusive, but which give this book a presence unlike any other. The lives of the characters are made real by what is usually left off the page. Characters ask each other if they have their birth control apparatus. Henriette's devotion to her psychoanalysis is followed throughout the book and is made to appear neither silly nor like the ultimate solution to her troubles nor only reason for her growth.
Most surprising of all, the setting for the two major characters is an elite academic department of anthropology, in which they are both specializing in Native American archaeology and ethnography. Each does field work. Kast presents this as comfortably, fluently, and unflinchingly as another novelist would present a weekend at the lake cottage. It's a rarefied world that most readers know little of, but Kast's authority is natural and we read it without a hitch or question.
During the first half of the 1930's, Kast's characters are encountering homosexuality, and unabashed racial mingling of both sexes which are clearly not far from being completely taboo. I appreciate, again, the straightforward way the author deals with these themes and details. She does not introduce anachronistic attitudes, but leaves characters testing their own feelings about them, wishing to be generous, and sometimes not sure how far they can let themselves go in abetting different lifestyles.
A Free, Unsullied Land isn't a novel that I read in one sitting. I wouldn't recommend that anyone try: It's much too interesting. Because all the elements are unusual—the characters; their settings; their ambitions; their values and how those lead them to solve the problems of their lives; the historical moment and how its many social, intellectual, and political issues resonate in the story—there is much to consider and digest. For me this was a slow read with plenty of pauses that has yielded rich rewards. The characters and themes really stick. I know, however, that I'm going back in. A book this substantial and unusual clearly has much more for me to discover.