by Thomas Davis
I have just signed a publishing contract with All Things That Matter Press for my new novel, In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams. I was first introduced to ATTMP by the books of Diane Denton. The author of three novels (Without the Veil Between is a book that I have recommended on this blog), I have followed Denton’s career before she became an ATTMP author. I have also read some of Mary Clark’s books, the latest being Miami Morning, who is published by ATTMP. Located in Maine, HTTMP has a substantial, and important, list of both authors and books that they publish.
In the Unsettled Homeland of Dreams is a novel about a black fisher community that located on Washington Island off Door County before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. At the time it was the largest black community in Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee. The novel traces the community from the time of its meetings with Preacher Tom Bennett in the boot of Missouri in the Mingo Swamp through their flight from slavery northward through Chicago to West Harbor on Washington Island.
I first stumbled across the Washington Island community of black fishermen when I was doing research for my non-fiction book, Sustaining the Forest, the People, and the Spirit (State University of New York Press), a number of years ago. When I moved to Sturgeon Bay I read Island Tales, an anthology by Kay Curtis, and found a mention of the community again. I was intrigued and started researching in order to write what I thought of as a sonnet sequence at the time. Then, on a trip to Washington Island, the owner of Faire Isle Books, Deb Wayman, told me she would really be interested in a book on the black community since no such book existed. What was first intended to be creative non-fiction later turned into a novel.
The following is the sonnet that introduces the novel:
A Spenserian Sonnet
Inside the swamp beside a cypress tree
(White herons in the water, bullfrog croaks
A symphony as dusk, as stealthily
As cat’s feet stalking small, shy birds, evokes
The coming night) the Preacher slowly stokes
The fire blazed in his heart and starts to sing
Songs powerful enough to loosen yokes
White masters forged through endless menacing.
The words he used burned deep; he felt their sting
And saw his spirit fire alive in eyes
Awake to dreams, inflamed imagining
Of days spent free beneath glad years of skies.
The darkness deepened underneath the tree.
He’d preach, he thought, then, later on, they’d flee.
I should also send out a word of thanks to Ralph Murre, the former Door County Poet Laureate, who gave me the title of the novel during a poetry workshop at the WriteOn, the writer’s retreat and organization in Door County. It is a paraphrase of a line from a poem by Pablo Neruda.