Maggie KastWhy did you want to write about the 1930s? It wasn’t exactly a great time.

It was the worst and the best. People were out of work and poor, but rallying and organizing for change. Lynch mobs threatened black people, but black and white marched together in protest for the first time since legal segregation was enacted in the South. Gay people, labeled “inverts,” were closeted and threatened with violence, but “pansy clubs” proliferated in the cities, a new one springing up every time the Vice Squad closed one down.

A Free, Unsullied Land CoverSweaty in the hot summer of ’27. An execution is imminent, and the family has been dreading it for years. Henriette wakes to the sound of feet hurrying along the hall outside her second-floor bedroom, then down the stairs and back up again. A thin, keening sound. Coughs and sobs. It’s her older brother Carl, plagued by a nightmare.

Henriette was eight in 1920 when Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fishmonger, were convicted of robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, and she’s grown up with this wound to her sense of hope and possibility. Wisps of adult conversation drifting above her head taught her the story. Now she lies rigid in her bed, as though her stillness could stop time, standing by while others face what may already have become disaster.