Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Book of American of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates, reviewed by Paul Daniel

736 pages. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $30.97 (Canada)

Abortion. Even now, it is still the issue for which reconciliation appears impossible. Both sides, as passionate now as in the past, have only intensified their positions and vilified their opponents. Ironically, it is that passion that links both sides’ humanity.

This is what makes Joyce Carol Oates’ new work of fiction, A Book of American Martyrs, so necessary and worthwhile. Rather than relying on warmed over tropes, Ms Oates chooses a careful and thoughtful examination of the personalities contained in both sides of this never-ending debate.

This work of fiction focuses on the murder of Dr. Gus Voorhees who is murdered in November 1999 while walking into a women’s clinic that provides abortions. He is murdered by Luther Dunphy, a God-fearing, God-serving believer who is convinced the murder of the doctor is saving lives of the unborn. Oates devotes a significant portion of the book to the effect Voorhees’ work has on his family. In between dodging threats and making due with a father who is often absent, the three children desperately try to retain a facsimile of unity even while divisions rise up between them.

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but think Oates’ story was reminiscent of the October 1998  murder of Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider who was killed by a shotgun blast into his Amherst, New York, home by James Copp.

Oates presents the perspectives of the family members of the victim and the murderer with a great deal of sensitivity. The murder itself takes place on the first page of the book in a sudden and shocking turn.

Joyce Carol Oates
While not condoning the violent action, Oates attempts to show what led Dunphy to this terrible moment. The death of his daughter because of a car accident and his wife’s emotional decline are heaped on the shoulders of Dunphy. Looking for some relief or a resolution to the pain he is enduring, he finds it in church and a particularly fiery priest outraged that abortion is still legal.

The preacher asks his congregation if there is not one among us who will take a stand and save lives. Perhaps not realizing the power of his oratory, the priest is approached by Dunphy about his words, the true meaning and what needs to be done.

The priest, realizing that Dunphy is dealing with an overwhelming sadness, attempts to diminish his growing desire to take a stand. The effect of his counselling is negligible.

The real strength of the book comes from the examination of how the two families are affected by this murder. In some ways, both families share the same fate: all the children in the respective families have no father, the wives are put in the unenviable position of having to bind the emotional wounds, stand by their men and somehow find a way to go on.

It would be understandable to feel compassion for the victim’s family as well as the family of the murderer. They are the unintended victims of this violent action. In a subtle manner, Oates is supportive of Dr. Voorhees but cannot fail to appreciate the sacrifice made, if involuntarily, by the family of the murderer.

In this monumental work that stretches out over 700 pages, Oates writing style is succinct and clear without being devoid of feeling. Readers can’t help but appreciate the emotional price that is paid by innocent bystanders caught in the emotional, political and literal crossfire of an unresolved debate.

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Paul Daniel is an audio producer at Accessible Media Inc., (AMI) in Toronto, Ontario. Writing and reading have always been his second and third passions following his first passion, his wife, Mary. He’s enjoyed being in Brian’s  creative writing class. “Brian’s class has reminded me the pleasures and challenges of writing,” says Paul. “There’s never a dull moment.” 

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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