A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates,
This author does not take prisoners – this microcosm of the opposing sides in the abortion wars, c. 2000, is no exception. Without realising it, the reader can draw her own family into the panoply of martyrs – whose lives have been ruined thanks to religious beliefs and judgements.
Like my grandmother who shot herself when her husband informed her he would divorce her
as she was too old to give him a son, or the aunt who was banished because she was lesbian.
The martyrs in this account are a well-known abortion provider in a small mid-Western town and an evangelical Christian tradesman who becomes convinced he will carry out God’s will by killing the doctor. Also martyred are their families, their wives and children, and, to a lesser extent, their friends.
By focussing on the families, Oates brings much to light that would not normally appear in a “history of American Martyrs” – the class and economic divide between the two groups; the educational differences; the rigid nature of the anti-abortionists’ churches; their completely different ways of life. This I believe to be true, and yet is overlooked in discussions on the abortion debate. It even raises questions about the democratic process – is their vote as thoughtful as ours?
Luther Dunphy is a zealous evangelical Christian, convinced that God has chosen him to assassinate an abortion provider, Gus Voorhees, in the driveway of the clinic where he is employed. Both men pay with their lives, in different ways.
This is a very long book at over 700 pages, but I didn’t find myself wishing that it were shorter, and I even felt sorry when it came to an end. The Dunphy characters – Luther and his daughter Dawn- are more fully drawn than the Voorhees family, who always seemed rather insipid. I don’t know enough about small-town Evangelical working-class Americans to know whether Oates is being clear-eyed or loading on the stereotypes- I suspect a bit of both. There is a lot of detail about boxing which probably could have been trimmed, although given that Oates wrote a series on essays On Boxing, it’s probably no surprise that so much attention is paid to the sport.
Oates herself does not come down on one side or the other of the abortion question. She gives each of the ‘martyrs’ a worldview that makes sense of their actions, however they might appear from the outside.
See my complete review at
Joyce carol Oates at her best.
A Book of American Martyrs has Oate's usual underpinnings of darkness...
But it's ending ( spoiler alert) signals hope:
Grounded in good research , the voices in this book are dead on.
Two men, two widows, two daughters ..the trajectory of their lives seems both intentionally and unintentionally cruel.
The protagonists life choices yield bitter fruit.
But the bleakness of adult grief has an unexpected outcome as their neglected children face rejection head-on. One behind the mask of a lense -the other in a punishing blood sport.
This is an easy but thoughtful read; but at over 700 pages this is not social media easy.
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