cover image Savage Coast

Savage Coast

Muriel Rukeyser. Edited, intro. by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein. Feminist, $16.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-55861-820-6

Rejected by her publisher in 1937, poet Rukeyser’s newly discovered autobiographical novel is both an absorbing read and an important contribution to 20th-century history. Rukeyser had already won the coveted Yale Younger Poets award when she traveled to Spain in 1936 as a journalist, to cover the ill-fated People’s Olympiad, a protest against the Olympics in Nazi-era Berlin. Her firsthand observations of the cataclysmic start of Spain’s Civil War, as seen through the eyes of her protagonist, a journalist named Helen, reflect the chaos, privation, and horror of the conflict’s early days with authentic detail. Helen is on a train that is forced to stop at the small Spanish town of Moncada, where soldiers come aboard. She becomes acquainted with most of the other passengers, a polyglot group of differing political sympathies. Her aroused political consciousness is augmented by a brief love affair with an antifascist German athlete, and they have a few days together once the group arrives in Barcelona. Throughout the narrative Helen reflects Rukeyser’s attempts to surmount her own emotional crises, articulating her need for a life of political action and expression. Ironically, the factors that led to the novel’s rejection—Rukeyser’s avant-garde impressionistic prose style, alternating with realistic scenes of brutal death and a few descriptions of sexual congress—are what make the book appealing today. While initially suspenseful, some longueurs intrude when Rukeyser attempts to cover nearly every hour of Helen’s five-day ordeal. Since the novel was left unfinished, albeit with Rukeyser’s notes regarding the chapters she intended to expand and edit, readers are not likely to cavil over its shortcomings, applauding instead her documentation of a crucial moment in history. (May)