1st Place Winner for Fiction in the Wordwrite Book Awards 2016
Reviewed by Amalia Cabral
A Free, Unsullied Land is a fully-fleshed rendering of a historic period, 1927-1933, a time of Jim Crow racism, a virulent form of panic about communism, Prohibition, and the Great Depression. Kast does not use the period as mere window dressing but instead recreates the uncertainty, fear and rather fraught exploration of the freedoms of the time – like a franker expression of sexuality, experimenting with roles of women, political activism.
The main character, Henriette Greenberg, is a perfect vehicle for channeling the stresses and opportunities of the era. She is a puzzled seeker, a restless and dissatisfied young woman from Oak Park, Illinois finding her way through parlous times. She is a reluctant academic, a confused sexual seeker, an untried political activist. One of the strongest parts of the novel is her naïve journey to Scottsboro to protest the conviction of innocent black men accused of rape, a journey that frightens her more than she’d expected yet at the same time anneals her growing interest in fighting injustice and oppression.
Henriette is fully immersed in the cultural and political upheavals of the times: she is conflicted about her role as female, seeking both the security of marriage and the danger and opportunities of independence; she is both fascinated by and repelled by radical demands for justice and equality; and she is both a willing participant in the emerging practice of psychotherapy and its most skeptical patient. Kast’s knowledge of the times extends to popular culture as well; we see Henriette falling in love with the musicals of Busby Berkeley and encountering dances like “snake hips.” The period is so ably rendered that it could serve as a history text.
Kast also presents some of the prominent voices of the times, from Aldous Huxley’s fear that there is no coherent self to the anguished claim of the doomed Vanzetti: “Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for. . . men’s understanding of man, as now we do by accident.” Henriette’s coming of age is emblematic of these ideas, as she suffers from a strain of panic in which she feels depersonalized and unreal. The journey of the self recapitulates the ideas gaining currency in this period between world wars. What is out there reifies what lies within.
The novel starts in Chicago, in the heady times of Prohibition and a growing bourgeoisie, of a pressure to conform (Henriette’s parents make the change from living as Jews to embracing the anodyne identity of Unitarians). Politics and academic life take her to the Deep South, to Indian life in Tularosa, New Mexico, and finally to Klamath Falls, Oregon. She seeks adventure and diversion but more importantly, identity and purpose, something to silence her internal stress, to connect her to worthwhile pursuit and personal authenticity.
Henriette, like so many thinking people of her time, is looking for the “free, unsullied land,” a reference to Native American lore but also a metaphor for her own quest. The novel explores the idea of guilt and contamination, the fear that we cause, not only our own troubles, but the suffering of others. Sexuality is almost always a source of confusion and hurt in this novel, and Henriette’s sexual past is one of horror and taint. Her considered decision to marry and to pledge fidelity to another person signals the beginning of healing, as does her final acknowledgment that, though most action is pointless, the act of transcription, of attempting to give voice to all that we see and feel is the only answer to the challenges of the human condition.
Amalia Cabral is a writer and teacher. You can read her other book reviews and articles on KarmaKindler.com. She served as Chair of the Wordwrite Book Award Fiction Committee for 2016.