I don’t remember what brought my attention to this book. Whatever it was, I am grateful for it. Nella Larsen was associated with the Harlem Renaissance and Quicksand is loosely based on her life. Our protagonist Helga Crane, like Larsen, has mixed-race heritage. A daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father, Helga finds that she doesn’t really belong to either community.
I found Helga Crane’s life to be completely tragic, which made me feel quite sad for her. Throughout her search to belong somewhere, I was rooting for her, thinking the entire time that soon she will find fulfillment and happiness. But Helga Crane is not a pitiable character. She is in fact fierce, tenacious and resourceful. Every time she falls, she picks herself right back up again.
Her journey takes her from Naxos (based on the Tuskegee Institute) to Denmark, via Chicago and New York, back to the south. The book starts with a disillusioned and dissatisfied Helga, feeling herself to be a complete failure at Naxos and contemplating immediate departure. But first she must tie up loose ends, like breaking off her engagement to a fellow teacher and heading back to Chicago. Shunned by her uncle’s bigoted wife, Crane finds work with Mrs. Hayes-Rore who then helps her find work in New York. Helga’s life in Harlem starts out optimistically, but she soon feels out of place and disillusioned. As she begins contemplating leaving Harlem, she receives a letter from her uncle in Chicago with the address of her aunt in Denmark.
With the money left to her by her uncle, she books passage to Denmark, where she is greeted with enthusiasm by her aunt and uncle. Although in the beginning she really feels at home in Denmark, soon she realizes that she is simply viewed as an “exotic”. The old disillusionment and dissatisfaction resurfaces and she longs to come back to Harlem.
At the end of the book, we see Helga dissatisfied with her new family life in the south. Her search for belonging and contentment seems to have led nowhere. But perhaps there is still hope…