Quicksand, by Nella Larsen  

Some time ago I read Nella Larsen's 1929 novel, Passing, and I also wanted to read her earlier novel from the year before, which is semi-autobiographical.  

Helga Crane is mixed-race, the daughter of a Danish immigrant woman and a man from the Danish West Indies.*  She is a teacher at Naxos, a (fictional) school in the South built along the lines of Booker T. Washington's ideas, and she hates it.  Helga drops everything and goes to Chicago, where she was raised by her mother's white relatives, and eventually ends up in New York City.  Here she discovers Harlem and Black culture for the first time.

Helga is a mercurial woman who falls in love with one way of life, is sure it will be permanent, and eventually feels an absolute need to escape.**  After a couple of years in Harlem, she flees to Copenhagen, where she lives with an aunt and uncle, and loves that until she absolutely must flee.  Back in Harlem, she drifts a bit, unsure of what to do, and then throws herself into an ill-advised marriage.  Will it be so easy to escape next time?

Her real dilemma is that she can't find anywhere that she fits.  Helga, raised by unfriendly white relatives, cannot find a permanent home with other Black people whose family history and life experience is completely different than her own.  Denmark, with its relative lack of a color bar, is more congenial than the US and she is popular and admired, but she can't feel at home there either and feels sure that she could never marry a white man.  So she runs back and forth between the worlds available to her, unable to settle.

An excellent novel, though I feel strange about how it ends.  I highly recommend it though, and would love to hear back about how other people feel about the ending!


*Now known as the US Virgin Islands, these are three islands, St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix.  The US purchased them in 1917.

**Helga's personality reminds me very much of a friend I had in junior high, who always needed something to obsess about and would periodically change focus....


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