I was privileged to be asked to read Thomas Davis’ new novel In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams pre-publication. It has just been released by my own publisher, All Things That Matter Press. Here is my review of this affecting, edifying, important novel:
While putting my thoughts together to write this review, I came across a quote by Mahatma Gandhi I immediately felt encapsulated the journey and destination of Thomas Davis’ compelling new novel: “The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall.”
In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams, its title taken from a Pablo Neruda poem, begins painfully, cruelly, despairingly, throwing the reader into the brutality plantation slaves were regularly subjected to. Yet, from the first encounter with fourteen-year-old Joshua, his shirt and flesh cut through, his stubbornness and resentment riled, his resilience tested from a particularly vicious whipping, we also meet the central theme of the novel: slavery might seem to succeed in owning the bodies of men, women, and children, but only because it unconscionably misjudges the power of resistance in their hearts, minds, and souls, and the risk they are willing to take for freedom and life as it is meant to be lived.
This meticulously researched historical fiction is set before the Civil War, based on actual people and events. Originally, as is noted at the back-end of the novel, it was a sonnet sequence. Thankfully, as Mr. Davis is a master of poetic language and form, a sonnet, whether Shakespearean, Miltonian, Spenserian, Italian, French, or Terza Rima, heads each chapter. In contrast, his prose is appropriately and effectively folksy, clearly conveying the perspective, experiences, and emotions of the story’s characters, especially the young Joshua, who travels both literal and metaphoric miles in his odyssey from rebellious, enslaved child to responsible, unfettered adult.
The story follows a group of Missouri slaves that includes families, some reunited after years of separation, the elderly, young children, and adolescents like Joshua. They are led by an imposing, determined, paternal preacher as they escape to the slave-free but not altogether safe north via the Underground Railway. Mr. Davis’ gripping narrative portrays the fear, hardship, starvation, exhaustion, and relief of these desperate travelers making their way for hundreds of miles on foot off the beaten path through thick woods, mud and otherwise rough terrain, or hidden in wagons, suffocating and cramped, here and there recuperating in safe houses and the kindness of abolitionists. Their flight is under constant threat due to Fugitive Slave Acts that makes capturing runaway slaves a lucrative business. Through Mr. Davis’ empathetic writing, the anxiety of knowing that in a moment their flight to freedom could be ended—their lives turned back to estrangement from those they love and enslavement by those who “care” for them only as chattel—is also the reader’s unsettling experience.
Fannie Barrie Williams, the author of “Black Women in Nineteenth Century American Life” wrote that the most savage thing about slavery was “its attempted destruction of the family instinct of the Negro race in America.” In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams gives this travesty real lives the reader becomes deeply invested in. This important and moving story of a black fishing community of West Harbor, Washington Island, Wisconsin, insists that the savagery of slavery can be—must be—obstructed. Mr. Davis speaks to the need for all human beings to live freely, individually, uniquely while forming families, friendships, and community; to be at liberty to compete and cooperate, to feel love returned and even unrequited, to know how life is naturally given and taken, to enjoy the refuge of home, to have work and leisure and an education, to make plans and pursue hopes and dreams.
My new novel, In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams, has just been put on the market by All Things That Matter Press. It’s available at Independent Bookstores as well as on amazon, https://www.amazon.com/dp/1732723788/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=In+the+Unsettled+Homeland+of+Dreams&qid=1566256736&s=books&sr=1-1.