It is surprising that Millen Brand’s novel has fallen into relative obscurity. When I first came across this title and read the novel’s synopsis on the back cover, I was immediately reminded of a film starring Carroll Baker, Something Wild. When comparing the two stories, it’s easy to note the similarities between Brand’s 1937 novel and the 1961 film: a girl who experiences a shocking tragedy suffers from a nervous breakdown; she later runs away lost and alone, and in a moment of utter despair is “saved” by a mechanic who takes her in despite not immediately knowing what had happened to her. This is where the similarities end; the tragedies both girls face are markedly different, as is the way the girls resolve their conflicts and reach a state of acceptance.
Brand’s novel is a sad, speculative tale that immediately engages the reader. The tone reflects the quiet confusion that is felt by the novel’s protagonist, Harriet. Circumstances have left her feeling cast adrift, overwhelming her with a sense of aloneness. She feels she has no real purpose in life or society; she lacks that important something that will ground her sense of place…a feeling of kinship, trust and home. Even though she does find a supportive partner, the novel quickly makes it apparent that her emotional quest is one that can only be made by herself, alone.
I particularly enjoyed how the author includes subtle details that inherently chip away at Harriet’s internal conflict. The setting details—the families living in and around the tenement, the children’s voices full of play and excitement, the merry-go-round mounted on the back of an automobile, the hurdy-gurdy music, the sounds of movement, laughter, anger and tears—all create a sense of place within a certain space. The place is busy and chaotic, yet it’s brimming with activity and life. The same holds true for the other places Harriet frequents from her work at the dressmakers, to Anna’s family apartment. Though it is apparent that these elements do lead to some changes in Harriet, she still faces a struggle that only comes to a head at the novel’s closing pages.
The ending might feel abrupt to some readers; however I think it’s fitting. The abruptness provides the reader with a tangible sense of Harriet’s moment of catharsis. It’s a study of contrasts…frustration and encouragement, despair and hope, worry and contentment. Ultimately, the conclusion provided here offers more to the story that a more conventional ending would have.