A Book of American Martyrs

A Book of American MartyrsA Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We live in a fraught and divided society. Many things divide us, and as we look around at those things, we realize that we are divided not just by our positions, but also by our entire worldview. There are almost no issues that are as divisive in our country as abortion rights. When, why, how and whether or not abortion should be legal and should be practiced is an issue that each side of the abortion debate attempts to take the moral high ground.

So, it is no surprise when this debate spills over into our literary novels. In A Book of American Martyrs , Joyce Carol Oates takes the abortion debate head-on by showing the most extreme form of both sides of the debate. The two “main” characters of the first portion of the novel are Luther Dunphy, a member of the anti-abortion group, Army of God, and murderer of the other main figure of the book, Augustus Voorhees. Voorhies is an idealistic abortion doctor, one who has helped thousands of women with their reproductive health and with ridding themselves of unwanted pregnancies.

When Dunphy murders Voorhees, two families are immediately deprived of their fathers. The remainder of the book is taken up with Dunphy’s trial and appeals, as well as the effect of this violent act and the absence of both Dunphy and Voorhees from their families.

As a reader, I don’t always want my literature to echo actual current issues. My fiction reading is usually a place of escape, so it is unusual for me to choose such a book for my reading. Having said that, this is a current issue that is of particular interest to me, so I enjoyed my time spent with this book. The characters are finely drawn. The issues are crisp, and the action moves well. The huge focus on the novel is on the daughters of these men, and they are both bitter and forever changed by what happens to their fathers. It is painful to see how the Dunphy and Voorhees families are fragmented by the crime. It is painful to see how hard it is for both families to move forward. If there were ever a good meditation on the importance of fathers within families, it would be this book.

The only difficulty that I had with this book (and it is the reason I did not give it four or five stars) is the difficulty that I had relating to Luther Dunphy. He is just an unlikable character and completely psychotic. I also hated that all of the Christians in the book seem to be portrayed as at least sympathetic to Dunphy, if not openly supportive of his cause. I worry that someone coming across this book will think that all Christians are okay with going around shooting abortion doctors. I wanted to shout, “I can be pro-life, and still not think that murder is okay!!” Just wanted to take a second to clarify that.

The secret sins, living conditions and uneducated squalor of the Dunphy family is about more than I can bear. In fact, I could not sympathize with him or his family for the most part, and I almost gave up reading this book in the lengthy portion at the beginning that is written from Luther Dunphy’s perspective. In fact, I feel that choosing such an extreme image of evangelical Christianity is enough to ruin this book for me.

Beyond that, the book is great. It is a wonderful meditation on the issues involved with abortion, and on how a father’s presence (or absence) affects the whole family. I’d give this one 3.5 stars if I could give half stars.

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