Writing a review of a book by someone you know is always difficult. Conscience quibbles. One wants to be honest about the book’s flaws, but one also wants to say nice things about ones friend. Fortunately, this is a first-rate novel and I can have my cake and eat a little ice cream too—both in gratitude for all the support he has given to me over the years, and because it is an important book and it is worth your while to read and study.
Yes, ‘In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams’ is good. It may even be a great novel. We’re too close to it to make those kinds those kind evaluations. Thomas Davis takes a small group of escaped slaves as they make way north to an island in Lake Michigan—and freedom—and allows enough space for the characters to grow and mature. And they can teach us some hard truths about freedom and faith. After all, who would know more about freedom than a slave. I don’t want to spoil the book by spilling the story, but consider this little vignette.
“We’re sharing now. We’ll have to share more later,” Joshua’s mother spoke up, her voice stern. “I understand about the boots. That’s a problem, I see that. But the truth is we are free.” [H]er voice rang with conviction. “Free men and women can get through anything.”
Free men and woman can get through anything.
Now, that’s not true. We know that. And probably Joshua’s mother knows it too. But the line speaks to a truth we also know, that belief can help us overcome the odds, that we can do what we must do, whatever is necessary. Belief here is the spirit, speaking, saying, doing. Living.
Belief is freedom.
This book is a tribute to that spirit. There is, however a strange anxiety at the heart of this book that we must pay attention to. The book gets its title from a poem by Pablo Neruda, ‘Ode to the Eye’, the epigraph tells us more.
Then, at night;
opens up from the other end, like a tunnel
to the unsettled homeland of dreamsTop of Form
It’s a haunting image. And ‘Ode to the Eye” is a beautiful poem. It is about blindness and insight. It refers to the eye as a ‘small/ octopus of our emptiness’. Provocative to be sure, but it seems to issue from a different place that the rest of the novel; who in the book could have such thoughts?
I want to show you something of Thomas Davis wrote to me about a poem that I wrote some years ago.
I believe, and want to believe, there is poetic truth here. I hope that we are all a mysteriouspoem and that each year adds to the poem. This is really an expression of how beautifully wonderful your mother must have been.
‘Each year she trembles in my arm,
once again my captive. Her muscles fade
into what they must stand for—’
This is a painful description of the debilitation of old age, of course, the failure of our bodies and the dependency upon others that come with the final movement in our lives. This too is a beautiful expression.
Then the final two lines:
‘Your dreams defy death as night ends,
I whisper. You aren’t really asleep’.
These lines have kept me from commenting for awhile…I have decided, perhaps wrongly, that what the poem says is that the poet is remembering the aged loved one inside their dreams, letting the loved one’s dreams, perhaps in themselves, continue their life, especially as night ends and morning comes. In this the whisper that knows death has come, but does not accept that what is, is: “You aren’t really asleep,” but awake in who the poet is as a son.
Pavane pour une infante défunte is slow and has a beautiful depth. This poem has something of the same quality. Its overall effect is one of a sense of loss in the face of beauty and an acceptance through denial of that loss. This is a really complex idea, but also a compelling one.
So, who could have these thoughts about octopi? Who could think about freedom and faith, belief in God, imagine slaves out fishing on the ice as it gets colder and the snow piles uP?[i]
You could. I could, Thomas Davis did.
Tom it’s a great book. Congratulations.