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A Book of American Martyrs


A Book of American Martyrs

On November 2, 1999, a religious zealot named Luther Amos Dunphy shot and killed two men in the parking lot of a women’s health clinic in a small town in Ohio. Dunphy’s sole intended victim was Dr. Gus Voorhees, an abortion provider, but Dunphy also killed Tim Barron, a clinic escort. This horrific act of violence and terror shocked (and alternately inspired) the nation and destroyed the Voorhees and Dunphy families.

Members of the two clans, notably daughters Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy, are at the center of Joyce Carol Oates’ latest epic, A BOOK OF AMERICAN MARTYRS. It is a vast novel, told from several perspectives, about heroic fathers, absent mothers and damaged children, not to mention the moral, personal, philosophic and religious issues that center on reproductive rights in America, specifically abortion.

Gus Voorhees was a dynamic crusader for the pro-choice movement. In a dangerous climate he chose to work in hostile areas, providing women with much-needed health care, including --- but not limited to --- abortions. But because his work put him in danger from groups such as those that violently targeted such doctors and their clinics, he was forced to live most of the time apart from his wife, Jenna, and his three children --- Darren, Naomi and Melissa. Still, Voorhees is adored by his kids and admired by many.

"This is a provocative and challenging read; from the subject matter to the writing style, Oates demands much of her readers but offers something powerfully affecting in return."

Luther Dunphy is also loved by his children. A hardworking roofer and failed Christian pastor, mourning the tragic death of his young daughter, Daphne, Dunphy’s tendencies toward violence and anger get channeled into his anti-abortion activism. Encouraged by the rhetoric of the groups to which he belongs, his identification as a member of the “Army of God,” and the assassinations of other abortion providers, he plans the murder of Dr. Voorhees. The act results not just in two deaths and Dunphy’s incarceration, but also the devastation of both families. Each wife and mother ends up unable to care for her children. Jenna Voorhees eventually leaves her kids with their grandparents and almost completely severs ties with them, while Edna Mae Dunphy sinks into a deep depression and pill addiction.

Left virtually alone, Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy grow up acutely feeling the loss of their parents as well as an abiding anger and loneliness. Both confront and challenge their father’s legacies. Dawn resists the reality of Dunphy’s crime by accepting his religion even as she literally fights, as a boxer, against the world. Naomi records and collects all she can about Voorhees, becoming a filmmaker and using her camera to gain access into her father’s life even as she hides behind the instrument. The resolutions Oates offers these two compelling young women are heartbreaking.

Beyond just the pro-choice and anti-abortion positions, Oates wisely introduces other, often related themes and issues, such as capital punishment, sexual violence against women, feminism and gender roles, the power of religious convictions, and the fragility of familial relationships.

With a piercing and relentless grief, A BOOK OF AMERICAN MARTYRS combines Oates’ unique literary voice, often disorienting and full of strange and lyrical phrasing, with a harsh realism. Here the truth that readers know is in tension with the varied perspectives of the characters. There is a clash of worldviews, but the beliefs the characters hold are not always expected. This is a provocative and challenging read; from the subject matter to the writing style, Oates demands much of her readers but offers something powerfully affecting in return.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on February 9, 2017

A Book of American Martyrs
by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Publication Date: October 10, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062643053
  • ISBN-13: 9780062643056