Book summary: Saving History


As usual from Howe (Famous Questions, 1989; The Deep North, 1988, etc.), a brilliant, often lyrical novel driven by a strong moral imperative in a gritty, surreal setting--but ultimately overwhelmed by a narrative that tries to hard, and ends too easily. In a tale written to explore moral ambiguities in an often political context--the question of ``un-American activities'' is a subtext--Howe tells the story of Felicity Dumas. Descended from an ethnic mix of native and immigrant Americans, Felicity grew up in Maine, where she met Temple, who since her teens has served ``the function of boss, seducer, never-lover, and owner of the world in which she was condemned to live.'' It is Temple who rescues Felicity and her daughters, Lee and Matty, from her abusive marriage, then arranges for her to help Tom, an activist lawyer, take care of his dying father. Tom, whose communist father had not only seduced fellow-communist Pedro's mistress but later betrayed him to the government on a false charge, is the apparent representative of virtue, while Temple--a dabbler in drugs, right- wing politics, and the selling of body parts from Mexico--is the Prince of Darkness who's ruined Felicity's life because she'll always be beholden to him--especially when she discovers that Matty needs a liver transplant. Temple is prepared to help for a price: Felicity must cross into Mexico and pick up a cooler of body parts. Meanwhile, Tom, learning of his father's perfidy, travels to California to see the jailed Pedro and also Felicity, whom he meets up with but can't really help (despite his goodness, all he ever did ``was listen''). When Felicity refuses to cooperate, Temple makes a startling confession, but Matty dies, and Felicity sets off on a redemptive journey back to Maine--and a slick happy ending. Provocative subject but ultimately too disjointed, as ideas and insights proliferate without any coherent connection.

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