Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)

As I read the last sentence, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because the end was coming, there was no time for another escape, for the pattern of Helga’s life to continue. “Oh, my” I uttered, as understanding of the meaning of the title, “Quicksand” sunk in. It had claimed her.

Quicksand Nella Larsen Identity Race BelongingVoice is Everything

What a unique voice and depiction of a rootless young woman searching for her place in the world, bereft, not finding a sense of belonging within family, when the world around her judged the two sides of her family as if they are different peoples because of the colour of their skin.

If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t belong.

Helga’s mother was a Danish immigrant, her father an African-Caribbean man of whom she had little or no memory or connection to his family. After her mother dies Helga (15) is sent to a boarding school, where life is a little easier for her, except for the growing awareness, like a hole inside her, that unlike her peers, she has no siblings, no family, no roots, no longing for home, no real happiness.

They had mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, of whom they spoke frequently, and who sometimes visited them.

Her life becomes a search to fill the void, an attempt to purge herself from a self-loathing of having been exposed to both sides of her heritage and their disdain for each other, unable to fully embrace either one, as she is both. And from the opening pages you know you are in the presence of a woman who is on a quest to discover if this is all there is, this half life she’s been living until now.

In one sense, her ability to get up and change her circumstances is admirable, empowering even, her refusal to accept the status quo and take action, her departing words carry unexpected strength. When she resigns from her teaching job mid-term, she doesn’t hold back in telling the principal how much she hates the school and his misguided perception of who he thinks she is, with her conflicted feelings of her biracial and non-Southern lineage.

In the girl blazed a desire to wound. There he sat, staring dreamily out of the window, blatantly unconcerned with her or her answer. Well, she’d tell him. She pronounced each word with deliberate slowness.
“Well for one thing, I hate hypocrisy. I hate cruelty to students, and to teachers who can’t fight back. I hate backbiting, and sneaking, and petty jealousy.”

Revenge Against Rejection

When she encounters those who see her, like Dr Anderson, she feels the urge to abandon her selfish need to flee, responding to a mystifying yearning to serve, until he too says the words that will inflame her ego, pushing reason away, refusing it a place in her thought process.

“Someday you’ll learn that lies, injustice and hypocrisy are a part of every community. Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them. If they didn’t, they couldn’t endure. I think there’s less of these evils here than in most places, but because we’re trying to do such a big thing, to aim so high, they irk some of us more.”

Her loss and lack of rootedness creates an incessant restlessness, her education, beauty and even her bigoted relative provide her the means to be independent. But that which she wishes to escape from, continuously pursues her, seeking solace in the outer world, she avoids the one path that might bring her serenity, to look within.

Nella Larsen Quicksand Passing Harlem Renaissance

Nella Larsen

She leaves Nashville for Chicago, where she discovers the need for connections and references and is brutally rejected by her Uncle’s new wife, who can’t bear to harbour the thought they might be related.

She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.

She finds her way to New York and finds solace there, until the restlessness returns. The descriptions of her encroaching discontent are vivid, realistic, perhaps even a real memory, being the more “obviously autobiographical” of Larsen’s two novels.

A windfall from her Uncle provokes an impulse to seek out her family in Denmark, whom she has dim but fond memories of from a childhood visit. Again she begins life anew and initially revels in it, and enjoys being the object of attention, until the vague discontent returns.

She desired ardently to combat this wearing down of her satisfaction with her life, with herself. But she didn’t know how.

A Sign of Healing

We are lured into the belief she may have found the right path, as leaving Denmark signifies a return after hearing the wailing undertones of songs remembered in her youth strike her longing heart, remove her defenses, making her homesick for more than just the land of her birth.

For the first time Helga Crane felt sympathy rather than contempt and hatred for that father, whom so often and so angrily she had blamed for his desertion of her mother. She understood, now, his rejection, his repudiation, of the formal calm her mother had represented. She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all his peoples’ environments.

Nella Larsen Passing Quicksand BiRacial Identity Belonging

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

A Surprise Twist

The plot then takes a significant and surprising turn and the ending too, contributing to what no doubt makes this an interesting novella for discussion, as to the origins and perpetuation of Helga’s difficulties, separation from the mother, from one’s lineage and family, identity, race, cross-cultural societal differences, what it means to belong and the expectations of being a woman.

I loved it. Even if it felt unfinished, like a young woman’s coming-of-age as she learns who she is, first from the outside, in terms of how others perceive her and also how she perceives the outside world, initially with each move, falling into the same trap of finding solace in that which is external to her. She is ripe for an inner journey of transformation, that which follows the realisation that who ones parents and family are, isn’t who “I am”. Instead she finds something else, a fork in the road and it is as if the author can not take us further.

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen (1891-1964), an acclaimed novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, became the first African American woman to win a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and won the Harmon Foundation Bronze Medal for Literature, celebrated as one of the bright stars of the Harlem Renaissance.

Famous for her two books Quicksand and Passing, she was the daughter of immigrant parents. Her father, Peter Walker, was a black cook from the West Indies, and her mother, Mary Hanson, was a Danish seamstress. Soon after Larsen was born, her father disappeared. Her mother remarried a white Danish man named Peter Larsen and they had a daughter. She spent four years living in Denmark before returning to the US where she worked as a nurse and a librarian.

 

Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and The Harlem Renaissance

Although well-known as a poet and pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance movement – an intellectual, social, musical and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, from 1918 until mid 1930’s, Langston Hughes also wrote Not Without Laughter, a semi-autobiographical novel, now considered a classic.

Three Harlem Renaissance Women 1925During the Harlem Renaissance, there was an outpouring of creativity, an expression of how African Americans sought social, political, and artistic change in the US, also influencing francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies living in Paris. This movement turned attention to and invoked pride, in the lives of Black Americans.

An anthology of essays, poetry and fiction produced during this era, edited by Alain Locke, reflects the voice of middle class African American citizens who desired  equal civil rights like their white, middle class counterparts. Langston Hughes however sought to give voice to and remained a humble advocate for the lower, working class.

His authenticity, appreciation and ability to see beauty in simplicity, evoked through the power of his words, proved him to be one of modern literature’s most revered and versatile African-American authors.

Not Without Laughter, written while he was a student at university, and inspired by his own youthful experiences, provides us a privileged insight into the kind of characters who inhabited his world and imagination, giving us today this powerful, timeless novel.

Books That Connect Threads

As I began reading this I was reminded of Bernice McFadden’s The Book of Harlan, a story of another young man, in part inspired by the author’s grandfather and pulling on historical references of the time, both general to the population and specific to her own family.

Here it’s semi autobiographical, as Hughes writes of a boy named Sandy, like himself and like Harlan, raised by a grandmother who was more worldly and wise, women with ideas about raising grandsons to reach their better potential, while their daughters were off following husband(s) who liked the road and moved from place to place in search of their dreams. Being a young couple and trying to make a living was challenge enough, the grandmother, though often a working woman herself, was a wise and practical choice for keeping a boy on track towards a worthy future.

When I read more about Langston Hughes, I was reminded too of Audre Lorde and her essays in Sister Outsider, of her travels and observations in Russia, looking at that foreign country through the lens of being black and a woman; Hughes too was curious about the world beyond his home town, travelling beyond his home and country.

Hughes rode steamships to West Africa, toured the American South, traveled to Spain to cover the Civil War, rode the Trans-Siberian Railway, and saw his own reputation shift from Harlem Renaissance star in the 1920s to Communist activist poet in the 1930s to public figure in the 1960s…

Book Review

Not Without Laughter is a coming-of-age story that introduces us to Sandy Rogers who lives with his grandmother who everyone refers to as Aunt Hager and his mother Annjee, who works as a housekeeper for a rich white family, while his father Jimboy traverses the country pursuing a living as a musician.

He was a dreamy-eyed boy who had largely grown to his present age under the dominant influence of women – Annjee, Harriett, his grandmother – because Jimboy had been so seldom home.

It’s 1930’s in small town Kansas and Hughes creates a vivid portrait of African-American family life in a racially divided society, where some try to make the most of the way things are without changing it, some try to help others no matter their colour or creed, some aspire to be like what they perceive are successful white folk and Sandy observes all, in the process of making up his mind about all that he witnesses.

Eventually Annjee follows her husband, whom she only ever sees through rose-tinted glasses believing that one day things will change and their fortunes will change. Sandy gets his knowledge of a man’s world from his part-time jobs at the barber shop and as a bellboy in a local hotel.

Aunt Hager as they affectionately call her, is a great character and the one who truly formed Sandy into the quiet, highly observant child and teenager he becomes, a hardworking washerwoman she is always there for those who are ailing, and worked every day of her life to the last.

We follow Sandy through his opportunities and disappointments, his observations of how his people are treated and the strangeness of those who try to be what they aren’t, moving up in a world that makes some of them ashamed of their humble beginnings and the humble trying to stay good, not allowing themselves to indulge in certain types of disreputable fun should it corrupt them.

Racism is ever present, like the shadow that projects itself in full sunlight, unquestioned, accepted and quickly forgotten by white children whose psyche is undamaged by its selective vengeance. Sandy sees everything, choosing his revolutionary acts wisely, knowing when to run, where to find safety  and paying homage where it is due.

Even when he is at a loss, his new situation offers him the opportunity to learn anew, seeing more of the world his people inhabit, the consequences of the various choices they make, so that by the time he too must make a choice, he is as well informed as he can be.

In the home of the social-climbing Tempy, Sandy discovers a treasure trove of literature, which he eagerly consumes. Life  blossoms for Sandy, who, as he excels at school, grows both in stature and self-confidence.  – from the Introduction by Maya Angelou

Langston Hughes The Racial Mountain Not Without Laughter

Langston Hughes

It’s a heartfelt story that leaves a sense of regret as the last page is turned, when Sandy is deciding whether to leave school as suggested by his mother, to support her, or return to his studies as suggested by his Aunt, who like her mother wishes him to have that chance at bettering himself.

His observations of family dynamics, of the impact of race, community connection, the culture of music and the complications of young love are portrayed vividly and without judgement, leaving it to the reader to note the obvious.

Ultimately the title says it all, the way to cope, the example he admires, the man who finds something in his day to laugh about or someone to laugh with, finds joy right there.

A rich and important work, Hughes shines a light on the black American experience, paying homage to those who formed and informed him, enabling him to leave his own legacy for which we are fortunate to have insight into.

I, too, am America.

Further Reading

Poem: I, Too by Langston Hughes

Essay: Langston Hughes landmark essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain

Article, New Yorker: The Elusive Langston Hughes by Hilton Als (2015)

An Introduction to the Author: Langston Hughes 101 by Benjamin Voigt

The Ferryman’s Daughter by Juliet Greenwood

Cornwall The Ferryman's Daughter Juliet Greenwood Historical FictionHester is the ferryman’s daughter, it is Autumn 1908 and she lives in a Cornish seaside village with her family, whose lives are soon to be forever changed when her mother dies.

Working Class Women

A working class family, her mother warns her against getting close to those living in the big houses, who employ but rarely befriend those deemed beneath them in status.

They are not like us. They will never be like us. However much they may try not to be, they see us as a convenience, the people who clean their houses and draw their baths and make their life comfortable. It doesn’t really enter their heads that we are as real as they are, with dreams and ambitions and a desire to also walk in the sun. And that can make them cruel, even if they don’t mean to be. You remember that and don’t ever be distracted from the path you wish to take.

Hester takes over the household domestic duties and then her father’s job becoming a ferrywoman, when he is invalided. Despite her ability to cope, her father is taken in by the wily Jimmy, who continually ignores Hester’s refusals and worms his way into the family and their business.

The Ferryman's Daughter Juliet Greenwood red fishing boat

Photo by Korhan Erdol on Pexels.com

After performing a rescue at sea, Hester experiences for one night what it is like to be waited on, to sink into a hot bath and rest, sleep, with nothing else to do.

Her eyes closed, savouring the stillness. ‘This is what I want,’ she said aloud. She had no hankering to be waited on like a queen, as she had been this evening. She just didn’t want to spend her life as a drudge, the one who got up first, who went to bed last. The invisible hand who did the cleaning and the cooking and the mending, along with the juggling of a meagre budget, the conjuring up of meals out of the barest of essentials.

She is a young woman working against the odds that would normally pull her towards accepting a fate confining her to care for younger siblings and a wayward father. She manages to keep alive her ambition to become something more than what society, her father and Jimmy expect from her, to develop independence without neglecting those who rely on her, finding those who see her for who she really is, even when she loses sight of that herself.

Dad saw reliance on a daughter as humiliating, a lessening of his manhood. Reliance on a son-in-law, particularly one who would, in turn, be reliant on his instruction and his expertise, would restore the natural order of things. Her feelings on the matter were irrelevant.

The Ferryman's Daughter Seaside cafe blue chairs flower pots Cornwall

Photo by Juany Jimenez Torres on Pexels.com

Women During the War

Eventually circumstances including the outbreak of war provide her an opportunity to pursue her first love, to cook wholesome homemade food from the abundance of the gardens of Afalon, the big house where her grandmother had been head cook.  She will be tested and confront challenges she thought she’d left behind, but doing so leads her towards a desire inherited from her mother she is determined to pursue.

A refreshing protagonist, living in an era where few women escaped the narrow role society decided for them, until war gave them a chance to show what were capable of. Hester paves the way in setting a new example for those who experience setbacks, showing how they can be overcome and the importance of working with and being supported by like-minded women.

Historical Fiction With Empowered Female Characters

Another captivating novel from Juliet Greenwood, set in her familiar locale of Cornwall, with her trademark, capable, independent woman protagonist exploring an alternative way of life than ‘the pursuit of a husband’ in an era where rejection of a man’s attentions was perceived as a mark against the character of a woman, who ought not to think so highly of herself as to be capable of surviving without him. A refreshing representation of the rise of the empowered woman.

N.B. Thank you to the author Juliet Greenwood for providing me with a copy of your new book.

Further Reading/Reviews

Review of Eden’s Garden by Juliet Greenwood

Review of We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood

Buy a Copy of The Ferryman’s Daughter via Book Depository

Burn by Patrick Ness

I have read two books by Patrick Ness, the unforgettable, award winning YA (Young Adult) A Monster Calls and one of his two novels for adults The Crane Wife.

The first one was written with the help of a powerful presence, in that it was the brainchild of the writer Siobhan Dowd , who didn’t live long enough to write the story herself, requesting that Ness take over and do it for her readers. And what he accomplished as a result was extraordinary, a dark tale featuring a monstrous yew tree that torments a grieving boy.

I wanted to read more, so chose The Crane Wife a modern retelling of a Japanese myth he read as a child. And enjoyed it as well.

Burn Patrick Ness Dragon FantasyDragon Symbolism

Seeing that he had a new book out and being in a reading lull, I decided to read this latest YA novel Burn, a book that features a world where dragons are employed as farm workers and a cult of Believers reveres them, one of the members has been told by their leadership and foretold by a prophecy that he must stop certain events from occurring.

On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957 – the very day, in fact, that Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath of office for the second time as President of the United States of America – Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm.

Featuring two dragons,  it reads more like realistic fiction than fantasy, I’d hoped the dragon presence to be greater, but it seems we only need a couple to be taught a lesson. We like dragon energy and symbolism here.

 Symbolically the dragon brings us a message of strength, courage and fortitude, they are messengers of balance and magic, encouraging us to tap into our psychic nature and see the world through the eyes of mystery and wonder.

The book is set in the 1950’s in America, racism and a mistrust of foreigners brings two young people together; the Russian blue dragon Kazimir (it’s set in the Cold war era) intervenes when the racist, trouble-making Deputy sheriff steps out of line.

“A Russian dragon,” the Deputy said. “In my town. With the way the world is today. You a Communist, claw?”

“I am a dragon,” the dragon said simply.

“You a threat to my country?”

“I do not know. Are you a threat to mine?”

The dragon might be friend or foe, depending on whether you believe Sarah, her father or the sheriff. But for sure, it has something to do with the prophecy that is driving everyone towards their farm for a bit of a showdown.

A couple of FBI agents are involved, creating an atmosphere of suspense as they pursue the person believed to be about to create chaos in their world across the country.

As we read, we are not sure whether the dragons are a force for good or otherwise and that aspect of the mystery carries through to the end and left me wondering whether there might be a sequel to the story as there were many elements and questions I had, that could have been explored, that may have been held back deliberately. Though the mystery is solved, there is a desire to explore further the world that has been discovered.

Teenage Reading and YA Fiction

Interesting for fans of fantasy teenage fiction, introducing historical-political elements about society in that era, the way foreigners and those of colour are mistrusted and maltreated, paranoid attitudes about communism, gay rights and cult fanaticism.

And the superheroes are those of our imagination, fire-breathing dragons and innocent not-yet corrupted children.

Do you like to read outside your normal genre occasionally? Have you read Patrick Ness?

 

I Am Dust by Louise Beech

This book is magical and extraordinary, as is the author, her daughter and her grandfather. I feel like I know them all, though we’ve never met. I’m unable to give an objective opinion because this book and her debut How to Be Brave will forever be etched in my heart and mind as books that evoked an experience that I now have a personal connection to.

A Dedication

I Am Dust Louise Beech Jenna Spartan Allia JenI Am Dust was dedicated by Louise Beech to my 17 year old daughter Allia Jen who passed away suddenly in Aug 2019 as the last chapters to this book were being written.

Like Louise’s daughter, Allia Jen lived with the daily grind (4 injections/day) of Type 1 diabetes. Louise’s excellent novel How to Be Brave (about a daughter’s challenging diagnosis and an arduous ‘lost at sea’ survival story inspired by her own Grandad Colin’s war story), was my reading choice when Jen had corrective back surgery for scoliosis in 2016.

We experienced a kind of psychic connection as that book took us on a trip, me experiencing symptoms of being lost at sea and for Allia Jen, the post midnight, morphine-induced presence of three beings with “strange English accents” present in the room. ‘It was Granddad Colin’, I said.

Jen loved the theatre, it was their favourite holiday activity, signing up for week long, full day theatre activities, mostly improvisation, rarely scripted. At first it seemed incomprehensible, having spent six years of primary school mute, never speaking in class, to school friends, or the teacher. And then wanting to sign up for theatre? Yes, but never with friends or anyone who Jen knew and I was requested not to attend the final show. I didn’t mind. I loved that she’d found her voice, was projecting it on stage and had found a new community of like-minded souls.

So ‘I Am Dust‘, a suspenseful, teen drama with a psychic element and a protagonist whose great love is the theatre, a character who is creative and doesn’t recognise her own talent, is a magical and meaningful gift to a mother who totally gets it.

The power is in us all along.

Book Review: I Am Dust

The novel is written in a past/present dual narrative.  In 2005 we meet Chloe, Jess and Ryan, teenagers in a youth theatre group that is rehearsing Macbeth; alternate chapters bring us to present day 2019 where Chloe works as an usher at the Dean Wilson Theatre, Jess is now the actress ‘Ginger’ and no-one has seen or heard of Ryan since that summer of Macbeth.

Morbid curiosity, youthful bravado and teenage love had joined the three of them, on a dusty stage in a church.

Louise Beech Playwright Author Writer I Am Dust Hull

Author, Playwright Louise Beech

The theatre is believed to be haunted by long-dead actress Morgan Miller who played the lead in the opening premiere of the musical ‘Dust’ a season that ended after four nights due to the tragedy.

The teens had been involved in a spooky game after hours, each of them with an ulterior motive; as the narrative progresses in the present, Chloe recalls what happened in the past, things she’d forgotten.

For some reason when Chloe chatted with Jess, a void cracked open and memories Chloe hadn’t known were there slithered out, like lava laden with debris – the dusty stage at the youth theatre, a box with letters and a glass in it, and three shimmering candles.

The past gains clarification and the present moves towards the re-staging of the iconic musical creating an atmosphere of eerie suspense and renewed interest in the unsolved murder of the lead actress.

‘How did we forget?
‘Don’t people bury traumatic memories?’
‘Maybe,’ muses Ginger. ‘But it’s more like…I don’t know. It’s like the synopsis of a play. We just can’t see the actual script.’
‘I agree. I can see bits clearly…other stuff, not so much.’

The setting in the theatre is realistically evoked, as if we are there; as the lights go down and the crackle of a voice comes through the radio earpiece with it’s threatening tone, a shiver runs down my spine and I imagine her in the dark looking around for the source of the menace.

At times the suspense is dragged out and the scenes with the teens end prematurely making the reader wait for them to meet again, but by the time to musical is close to opening for the second time, the pace has picked up and I’m no closer to suspecting the truth behind the mystery element of the novel, my one suspicion turning out to be hopelessly wrong and the finale comes as a shock.

And then the most beautiful, reverent ending that evoked all kinds of emotion in me and had tears rolling my cheeks. I look back at the dates that the book was being written and remember what was happening in our own lives at that time and recognise how much more I understand about life after death than I did before August 2019.

‘That’s what I found the hardest,’ admits Morgan, still golden gorgeous in the glow of the mirror lights. ‘Never getting to say goodbye to anyone properly. But there are ways you can. Love lingers. It’s still there, even if you’re not.’

I can’t say whether this book is for you, but I want to say a huge thank you to Louise Beech for her gesture, and for following her own heart and passion, for she too, like the protagonist, is a lover of theatre, an usher and a girl with a few screenplays in her top drawer that I hope one day, like Chloe’s, will make it onto the stage.

Written from the heart, it brings the stage alive, igniting the imagination of those with a passion for theatre, whether from the front mezzanine seats or in the spotlight. It would make an excellent theatre piece.

Lest We Forget

“I’m still here; I am dust.

I’m those fragments in the air,

the gold light dancing there,

that breeze from nowhere.”

Dust – the musical

Further Reading

My review of How To Be Brave

My review of Louise Beech’s The Mountain in My Shoe

My review of Louise Beech’s Maria in the Moon

Buy a Copy of I Am Dust via Book Depository