She Was by Janis Hallowell

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I would like to think I have the ability to seperate politics from literature. After all, I enjoy any number of musicians whose politics differ sharply from my own and yet whose music, even when it is influenced by and expressive of that politics, I enjoy.  Sure, things get to the point where the politics overcome the music (Bruce Cockburn’s Life Is Short Call Now is a perfect example).  The point is that I would like to believe that I don’t have to agree with or approve of the political sentiments of something to appreciate its skill or merit.

Janis Hallowell’s second novel She Was has cause me to muse further on this subject. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn, and even did a Q&A with her about it.

So when I heard she had a new novel coming out I was excited to read it. Here is the publishers description that caught my attention:

Doreen Woods is many things: a successful dentist who donates time and skills to the needy, a loving wife and mother, a sister who cares for her dying brother. She has carefully built an exemplary life. But all of this is threatened when a comrade from the seventies shows up. Over the next week Doreen’s past rushes in as she is forced to admit to her family and herself the actions that caused her to change her name and identity three decades earlier.

In 1970 she was impressionable and idealistic Lucy Johansson. When her brother, Adam, came home from Vietnam damaged and bitter, they moved to California, where she raged against the war and the Establishment with many others of her generation. She joined an antiwar group and participated in increasingly militant protests designed to bring attention to their cause and to change the world for the better. But all the best intentions and careful planning couldn’t keep things from going terribly wrong.

Told from a twenty-first-century perspective, She Was spans the width of the American continent and the depth of social upheaval of the second half of the twentieth century. She Was explores the violent, determining act in one woman’s life that mirrors the formative trauma of her age. She Was is a story about the indelible nature of the past, about hiding in the ordinary, and, ultimately, about making amends.

The irnoy is that I was worried about politics intruding in the first book:

I must admit, however, that I was nervous as I began to read. I was afraid it might turn into a heavy handed feminist novel. After all the story largely revolves around a couple of single mothers and the dysfunctional families that surround them. Throw in the issue of homelessness, mental illness, and abortion you have the ingredients for a real political slant.

I noted, however, that “the author doesn’t take that turn but instead uses these characters to present an intriguing and in many ways touching story.” I had hoped that She Was would turn out the same way. But while there are many of the same elements involved, and parts of the story reflect Hallowell’s obvious skills as a writer, in the end the politics and history just drag the story down toward didacticism.

If you think Bush is Nixon, Iraq is Vietnam, and that Boomer leftist radicals were well intentioned idealists that got carried away on occasion, you might be able to read She Was without being turned off. Alas, I was not. Combine this with an anticlimatic ending and the book just falls flat despite some good characters and potentially compelling story lines.

More below.

One of the reasons I didn’t engage with Hallowell’s attempts to link the present with the past is the way she stacks the deck. Lucy and her brother are practically saints. Their abusive conservative parents drive them away from Kansas City and out to California where they become involved in the anti-war movements. But they are always on the side of angels. The protester’s language is always couched in idealistic language, the cops are always the aggressors, and the radical group Doreen joins is founded an non-violent ideals. It only agrees to take up violence against institutions and buildings – not people – to make its voice heard; to force the intransigent Nixon administration to listen. The violent act that sends Lucy into hiding and into her life as Doreen is a tragic mistake. She never meant to hurt anyone and feels guilty over the theft of a car.

After they go into hiding the beatification continues. Her brother is a gay Vietnam veteran who gets MS. She becomes a dentist who sets up a low income clinic and works on homeless patients. She regularly sends money to the wife of the man she accidental killed. She is a loving wife and mother. Her son, a anti-war protester in his own right, wants to go to Costa Rica and study dolphins. On and on it goes. The worst thing that can be said of Doreen is that she is overly secretive, stayed away from her overly-critical mother, and now lives a thoroughly bourgeoisie life (she runs the air full blast in her SUV!).

Throughout the story the connection is clear: at least the sixties radicals cared enough to take action. Today everyone seems helpless against the evil Bush war machine. “Where is the idealism?” Hallowell seems to wonder. She never stops for a moment to offer contrasting characters or a hint that maybe her simply analogy doesn’t work.

Even with this cardboard cutout argument, Hallowell does manage to achieve some success. Despite his almost ridiculous PC nature (a gay veteran with abusive parents and a handicap whose lover dies of aids and who is taken care of by an illegal alien), Hallowell crafts an at times compelling portrait of Doreen’s brother Adam and his struggle with MS; of what it might be like to fight a losing battle with your mind and body.

I also found Doreen’s husband Miles an interesting character. He is smitten with her from the start and, deeply in love, willing to overlook her guarded and almost reclusive nature just to be with her. He enjoys the life they have built and can live with the flaws.  He isn’t caught up with the politics of the outside world as much as the simple pleasures of his own life.

There are hints of a compelling story here. The concept of a former radical coming to grips with how one act changed their life has promise. And how Lucy became Doreen is an interesting story in many ways. But the individual parts don’t come together. The story is constantly interrupted as we switch from Lucy’s past to Adam’s past to the present. Hallowell also adds in an almost supernatural aspect with a sort of insect women that haunts Adam as part of the dementia brought on by his MS.

To me it seemed as if there were just too much trying to be told. Hallowell wants to make a clear connection between that era and the present – and in doing so damn Bush, Halliburton and all the rest – but she didn’t find away to tie it together in a coherent way. The history and the politics distract from her style and acts as a drag on the story. Telling Lucy/Doreen and Adam’s story, with flashbacks to both, and all of the secondary characters and then continuing to reference the present conflict in Iraq just overloads the book.

All of this might have been overlooked more if the ending wasn’t so anti-climatic. Everything leads up to Doreen being apprehended by the FBI, of giving up her secret life, but once that happens the book just ends. No real resolution or even a surprising twist. And there isn’t any clear sign of Doreen coming to grips with her life choices. She insists that her idealism led her to take the actions she did and her secrecy was intended to keep her family safe. And since Hallowell hasn’t given her any real flaws or bad intentions there is little to make amends for. Sure she feels guilty about what happened, but it was really just a tragic mistake.  Her future life is just another path along the way.

This is a shallow way to approach this era. No matter where you stand politically, surely we can agree that it was a little more complex than just good intentions and tragic mistakes. Hallowell offers little explanation for why a person would travel across the country with the aim of blowing up a building and then hide from the government for 30 years and yet reflect nothing but concern for others.

I remain convinced that it is a rare skill to be able to tackle hot button political topics in novels and not turn out flawed fiction. Try too hard to make a point and you lose the art and craft of story telling. Hallowell clearly has those skills and they show through in She Was, but she was weighed down by the burden of the political point she was trying to make. This was too much to overcome in my opinion.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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