Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Book of American Martyrs

Where have I been you might ask (in case you check in every week to see what I'm reading). Insert smiley face emoji here. Well, I have been locked in the head of Joyce Carol Oates, a place that, if you are familiar with her fiction, can be most uncomfortable. "A Book of American Martyrs" comes in at an astounding 755 pages and yet, if you can convince your book group members to buckle down and dig in, this saga would lend itself to a deep discussion.

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I've read many blurbs and reviews of this novel and they all seem to propound that the focus of Oates' book is abortion. That is really a gross oversimplification of a work that has deeply nuanced things to say about pro-choice/pro-life stances, the death penalty, equality in marriage, responsibility in parenting, forgiveness, and oh yes, boxing. Those of us who have met Ms. Oates at various conferences will remember that she has an inordinate interest in the sport of boxing and manages to display her knowledge very credibly in the final third of the book.

It's no secret that the two men at the heart of this novel are deeply devoted to their beliefs. Dr. Gus Voorhees is a surgeon who performs abortions at women's clinics in the poorest parts of the mid-west, Michigan and Ohio, going where he is most needed to help women who are faced with the most gut-wrenching decision they will likely ever have to make. Gus is a husband and a father of three.

Luther Dunphy is a born again Christian, a member of the Army of God, an organization that pickets women's clinics hoping to inhibit the slaughter of innocent babies. He believes that God has personally called to him. Voorhees is the name of a doctor on a hit list. Dunphy has a shotgun. He too is a husband and a father of four.

On November 2, 1999, the two men's paths will cross but the ripples of that fateful meeting will span another decade and a half as Oates pivots between the two families as they cope (or not) with the violence that has upended their lives. To illustrate just how complicated the abortion issue can be, Oates introduces readers to a mother who chose against abortion but ten years later physically abandoned her son. Another mother in China gave her daughter up for adoption. That girl is adopted by the Voorhees family. The widows disappear from their children emotionally, finding solace in work or in religion. The siblings become estranged as they try to distance themselves from their past. There is a ferocious amount of loss in this thought-provoking, weighty tome.

Reading the chapters that address the workings of the death penalty, the stays, the re-trials, the solitary confinement before the final sentence, hammered home for me the reasons why I could never condone capital punishment. Ms. Oates writes as if she'd been on death row herself and one doesn't doubt for a second the authenticity of the thoughts running through the heads of the guards or their prisoners. As I mentioned, there's lots to discuss here.

But ultimately I came to the conclusion that this book is about forgiveness and growth. There were so many times during my reading when I wondered "where is she going with this?" When the "ah ha" moment arrived I was so relieved that I wanted to cry. So, yes, I do think the book could have been whittled down a bit but hey, does anyone get to edit a writer of Oates' reputation? Probably not. And do we really want to excise one word from a writer so capable of taking you along on such a roller coaster ride? Probably not.

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