To describe Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel as anything short of epic feels disingenuous, and yet it still falls short of capturing A Book of American Martyrs’ gravity. The narrative explores both sides of the national debate surrounding access to abortion, exposing the violence that may erupt when devotees of both causes meet. It’s also a testament to how fervor for a cause can inspire such devotion that families are destroyed.
On November 2, 1999, Luther Dunphy shoots and kills Dr. Gus Voorhees in the parking lot of a women’s center in Ohio. Voorhees, one of the most prominent abortion providers in the country, made a name for himself defending women’s rights and fighting for abortion access. Dunphy, a carpenter and Evangelical pro-life activist, views abortion as murder. Seeing an opportunity to end to what he views as Voorhees’ crime spree, Dunphy kills the man and waits to be arrested.
The opening cast—a liberal doctor and a right-wing activist—appears cut and dry. But Oates complicates the narrative by crafting a multi-decade and intergenerational story of the two men and their families.
Dunphy’s life is one of near constant tragedy, from his childhood with a distant father to his failed career as a minister to the death of his young daughter and his wife’s subsequent battle with depression. He’s a man grasping at control that always eludes him, who uses religion as a source of comfort against the battering tide that has been his life. But he’s also a man with deeply misogynistic views—a man who sexually assaulted a young woman when he was in high school and who holds wife’s sexuality against her.
But Voorhees is also less than heroic. Although he is the public face of the pro-choice movement, he often leaves his family to travel or work. His wife, like Dunphy’s, gave up her out-of-the-home career when they had children so that her husband could continue his job. And he’s not open with her about the danger he faces as a target of the ultra-right-wing Army of God, choosing instead to pretend that there’s a safe line between his career and his home life.
Oates teases out the similarities between the Dunphys and the Voorhees, highlighting each family’s struggle with a father who is co-opted by a cause. The latter portions of the book are rooted in daughters Dawn Dunphy and Naomi Voorhees’ experiences as they grapple with the fallout of their fathers’ choices.
Oates is at once critical and empathic, eschewing simple black and white moral arguments for a nuanced examination of martyrdom. Voorhees and Dunphy both become symbols for their respective causes, but by doing so they allow their families to be martyred by public scrutiny. The families’ broken lives and attempts to reclaim their respective identities are heartbreaking.
Ultimately, Oates does not moralize, and this isn’t a book that will comfort those who are strong in their beliefs. But in that lies the book’s value. At a time when we as a society feel so ideologically distant and yet are told that we have more in common than all that divides us, this novel rings true without being weighed down by sentimentality. Abortion is a viscerally relatable debate around which to build a narrative, but A Book of American Martyrs’ central themes apply to other debates. The machinations that drive devotees into conflict will continue to exist if a consensus isn’t reached, leaving behind nothing more than martyrs to an intractable war.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.