In a A Free, Unsullied Land, Maggie Kast tells Henriette Greenberg’s coming of age tale as she grows up in prohibition era Chicago. Henriette is a troubled nineteen year old girl when the reader meets her, and as a sheltered teenager, she is wooed by stories of the greater world that she has yet to experience. She has just enrolled at The University of Chicago and is about to set out on an adventure to live her own life and to separate herself from the dysfunctional household from which she comes.
Henriette though, like most teenagers, is plagued by a myriad of thoughts, issues and desires that often throw her off her course or make it challenging for her to actually find her course. Her interests range from psychoanalysis to anthropology, from communism to civil rights. However, her emotional and relational sense of self is shadowed by a secret of her past that mars her relationships, especially with men, propelling them into states of utter dysfunction.
The reader learns within the first hundred pages that Henriette has an unresolved sexual experience that she does not fully remember, nor does she fully understand how to process it even years later. Though the reveal seems to come rather late in the novel, it is easy to pick up on the clues Henriette leaves prior to the reveal, and the reader knows from the outset that she has a troubled past in relation to sexuality.
Henriette can often seem like a self-entitled, privileged moaner, and this at first makes it hard to always sympathize with or understand her in regards to her motives. However, as the novel progresses and we not only learn more about Henriette, but she learns more about herself, it becomes apparent that Henriette is simply a teenager. As she grows, she becomes less spastic and more rational, less demanding and more understanding of the world around her and the other people in it.
What Kast does a phenomenal job of is showing Henriette’s transformation from a sheltered and privileged seventeen year old girl to a young adult living on her own and dealing with her own problems not only with the outside world, but with herself. The arc of Henriette’s development from a damaged self into a stronger, more assertive and resilient woman makes her, in the end, a relatable and noteworthy character. The troubles that she goes through and the deluded way in which she often handles her problems in her youth are not only recognized, but remedied in that recognition. Henriette sees her own foolishness and is simultaneously able to understand and accept herself and her past in a way that she can’t at the outset of the novel.
A tale of growing up, of dealing with pain and of learning to love the self that other’s can’t always see, A Free, Unsullied Land also drips with relevant historical underpinnings and shows readers a glimpse of what life must have been like in the 1920s and 30s.
A Free, Unsullied Land was released by Fomite Press on November 1, 2015. Don’t miss the launch of the novel at Women and Children First on Friday, November 13.
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FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.