Review: A Book of American Martyrs
Gabrielle DeCristofaro • June 28, 2017 • Art
Joyce Carol Oates’s most recent release, A Book of American Martyrs, has several classic themes common of an Oates novel: families beset by tragedy, multiple narrators, and polarized ideologies, all deeply grounded in feminine issues. Oates, whose career has spanned the past five decades, is a master at writing in a tone, as she has with books like We Were the Mulvaneys and especially the four books that comprise her Wonderland series. In this novel, the moment that causes the action for the rest of the narrative occurs right at the beginning. Through the narration of Christian fundamentalist Luther Dunphy we see:
“Already in this instant the trigger was being pulled, the barrels aimed at the abortion doctor at above the level of the chest, and the blast of the first barrel knocked Augustus Voorhees backward and tore into his lower jaw and throat in a way terrible to behold as if the Lord has dealt His wrath with a single smote of a great claw; for shrewdly I aimed high, not knowing if the abortion murderer was wearing a bulletproof vest” (4).
What follows is Dunphy’s story, and his, sometimes cryptic, reasons for seeking out Voorhees as his victim. Dunphy, as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, living in rural Muskegee Falls, Ohio, and as a member of the “Army of God” believes that his God-given duty is to murder doctors that provide abortions. He claims that he is to defend the defenseless, but we get the sense that isn’t the whole truth.
The mind of Luther is riddled with contradictions. He has abused women in his teens and has a dysfunctional relationship with his wife in their adulthood. But as a narrator, and chief catalyst for the rising action of the novel, he is still one of the characters that readers must associate with. Mostly, though, we don’t ever feel that Luther experiences remorse for anything he has done. He believes it is a mission from God.
Following Dunphy’s perspective, the remainder of the novel is given two female voices. We are initially drawn into the parallels of the two families, the Dunphys and the Voorheeses, through two idealistic men, and then through their young daughters, Dawn Dunphy and Naomi Voorhees. The vast differences between these two characters is wildly pronounced. Naomi is the daughter of a liberal doctor, while Dawn is the daughter of a Christian carpenter.
As is common in an Oates novel, there is a female victim of sexual assault. While this particular attack short-lived, the events leading up to it causes tension. The effects of which permeate throughout the rest of the novel, in a more proactive way, as Dawn does not let herself become a victim. As perhaps is different from, say, how a liberal woman might react to a rape, Dawn turns this moment into something for God and becomes a boxer. Her life as a boxer raises questions about women’s roles in male dominated arenas, and how a woman is used as a product rather than awarded for her talents and abilities.
We are also made to consider throughout the novel: Who is more righteous? The right-wing Christian fundamentalists that do not abort their daughter, even though they know she will be born with down’s syndrome? Or the liberal lawyer and her husband that provides abortions, then adopts a child from China, even though they already have two children of their own?
While these are vastly polarizing ideologies and lifestyles that are being presented in this narrative, we are still afforded the emotion of sympathy with characters that may have the complete opposite ideology of our own. Is this a type of narrative Stockholm Syndrome? No matter what our personal ideologies are, we are left to associate our emotions with people from both ends of a very wide spectrum.
Further, Oates, as always shows a mastery of her subjects through the esoteric languages of the people she is depicting. In A Book of American Martyrs, they are the medical field and Christianity, and the permeation of such tones set by different sectors of America. Her use of language, depending on the narrator at the time, will indicate the level of education. When the reader is in the shoes of a Dunphy, she uses short sentences and phrases and choice words in parentheses. She is able to show both sides of this issues, while remaining fair by never taking a side with her own voice and opinions.
Many instances play on the imagery of America. Christians protesting outside several of Voorhees’s practices are reminiscent of times when members of the Westboro Baptist Church have protested outside of Planned Parenthood. Further, prescription pill abuse is touched upon, and has become a well-documented epidemic in America.
There’s some extreme violence, along with the painful rising and falling action throughout A Book of American Martyrs. One belief system is murdered by another belief system. However, it is the younger generation, only informed by the ideologies of their parents, that are capable of being reborn into responsible adults. There isn’t always redemption in an Oates novel, but the natural course of this story allowed for it.Available at the Boulder Bookstore