Thursday Sampler: A Free, Unsullied Land by Maggie Kast
March 24, 2016
In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle is showcasing some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Thursday’s Sampler features an excerpt from A Free, Unsullied Land by Maggie Kast. As one reviewer said: Everything about this book surprises by it’s unvarnished and fresh realism.
About Maggie Kast:
Maggie Kast is the author of The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family, published by Wipf and Stock. She received an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has published fiction in The Sun, Nimrod, Carve, Paper Street and others.
A chapter of her memoir, published in ACM/Another Chicago Magazine, won a Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council and a Pushcart nomination. A story published in Rosebud and judged by Ursula Leguin won an Honorable Mention in their fantasy fiction contest.
Kast’s essays have appeared in America, Image, Writer’s Chronicle and elsewhere. Her first novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, is forthcoming from Fomite Press in November 2015. An excerpted story, “The Hate that Chills,” won 3rd prize in the Hackney Literary Contests and is forthcoming in the Birmingham Arts Journal.
Nineteen-year-old Henriette Greenberg takes her first steps away from an abusive home on the dance floor of a Chicago jazz dive in prohibition-era Chicago and is enraptured by this new music.
Struggling to escape a mother who doesn’t like girls and a father who likes young women all too well, she submerges herself in bad sex and political action.
She meets and falls in love with Dilly Brannigan, a graduate student in anthropology. Ignoring his warnings, she travels to Scottsboro, Alabama to protest the unfair conviction of nine young black men accused of rape.
She adopts Dilly’s work as her own. A powerful funeral ritual gives her hope of re-writing her family story but tempts her to violate an Apache taboo, endangering her life, her love, and her longed-for escape from home.
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 hurrying 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 older brother Carl, plagued by a nightmare.
Henriette was eight in 1920 when Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fishmonger, were convicted 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 roaring to life. Henriette sat silent through many dinners while her parents argued, her shoulders rigid, focused on spooning her soup “as little boats go out to sea . . .away from me.” Late at night, roused by fighting voices, she’d stand in her bedroom in the dark, aching for calm, while angry words curled under and around her door like smoke. She’d bite her swelling lip and strain to hold her parents together while Carl ran through the house, trying to outrun bad dreams. Here he goes again now, panicked at midnight. His identical twin, Russell, is used to the sound and does not wake.
Sacco and Vanzetti protested their innocence for seven years following their conviction, supported by the likes of Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. By the time Henriette was twelve, the case was famous all over the world and awakened her own sense of justice. Maybe the world was really not a good place.
As she entered adolescence she felt energized to protest. Her favorite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote to the governor of Massachusetts in a letter widely publicized, “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. Millay was arrested along with Katherine Anne Porter and Dorothy Parker for demonstrating against the execution. Then a convict named Celestino Madeiros confessed to the crimes, and the protest continued to spread. 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.
Now she lies in bed, hot, moments before hope is lost. She pictures Carl sparking as though he were a live wire, as though his own body felt the deadly current that could at any moment zip through all three convicts: Sacco, Vanzetti, and Madeiros. She refuses to think about what it’s like to know the moment when you will die, to be strapped into a chair and wait for someone to throw a switch. She murmurs Millay’s despairing lines: “Forlorn, forlorn/ Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow/We shall die in darkness and be buried in the rain.”
Just before her thought of execution can defeat her refusal to imagine it, her parents step out into the hall across from her bedroom. The running stops. The cry subsides, and voices speak soothing, grieving words. It’s shortly after midnight, and the radio has just announced the execution. Henriette tenses, squeezes out tears, and thinks of Vanzetti’s words, written when his last appeal failed: “The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us. That agony is our triumph.” She knows that this disaster can never be undone. Opening her bedroom door, she stands there, helpless, seeing the shame in her parents’ eyes, shame for their country and the rule of reason in which they’ve put so much faith. Mother’s arm encircles Carl, who pants and drips sweat, his face pale, while Father’s stony face for once does not melt at the sight of Henriette.
Huge crowds follow the funeral cortege through the streets of Boston, and people wear black armbands reading, “Justice crucified.” Vanzetti’s final words, spoken to the warden as he walks to the electric chair, are publicized. “I wish to say to you that I am innocent. I have never done a crime, some sins, but never any crime. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only this one, but of all, of all. I am an innocent man. I now wish to forgive some people for what they are doing to me.”
The words chill Henriette with their dignified generosity, their tragic failure. They stay with her as she grows up and goes to college, popping up at odd moments to remind her of the world beyond family, classes, and boyfriends. Maybe she will not remain a bystander forever.