The word terrorist is thrown around quite a bit these days. We can all agree that the events of 9/11 was the work of terrorists. Few people would hesitate to call Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, a terrorist. But what about Palestinian children who throw rocks at Israeli soldiers? What about the Zapatista movement in Chiapas? Those are more difficult questions, especially now that the Zapatistas aren't using military weapons to achieve their revolution. But they are actively working to overthrow the Mexican state.
For a brief moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s the protest movement against the war in Vietnam took a violent turn. Frustrated protesters made the argument that the immoral war needed to be stopped by any means necessary. Bombs were set, people were killed and many of the perpetrators went into hiding. They became fugitives. Were they terrorists?
In Janis Hallowell's new novel She Was, Doreen Woods, a professional mother living in Denver, is one of these fugitives. A student radical at Berkeley in the 1970s, she has eluded capture for 35 years and transformed herself from a violent teenage war protester into a mother nervous about her son's attendance at a peaceful anti-war rally. She hardly seems like a violent enemy of the state.
"I wanted to write about a fugitive woman," Hallowell said in a wide-ranging interview. "These women really existed, more than one. There were few notable political things that women did, but women took starring roles in this kind of action."
The action in question is a bombing at Columbia University that kills a black janitor. Hallowell recounts the night from the perspective of Louis Nilon, the victim, in a spellbinding prologue that evokes pathos without being sentimental. The janitor makes his rounds thinking about his life while listening to the Ali-Frazier championship fight. It's clear that a human being has died in this explosion. There's no writing off of Nilon as collateral damage.
That's more damage than Hallowell's real life model for Doreen Woods, Kathleen Soliah, did when she planted bombs in Los Angeles police cars in 1975. Those bombs didn't go off. Soliah went into hiding and 24 years later was arrested living under the name Sarah Jane Olson. She was back in the news last month, when she was released from jail and rearrested due to an administrative mistake.
"I decided to turn up the volume a little more," Hallowell said. "I wanted to bring into higher relief the moral ambiguity of the situation. It's one thing if you set a bomb and it doesn't go off. But it does explode and kills a black working-class man--the very kind of person that the radicals said they were doing these things to help. I made it harsh on purpose. I didn't expect to feel compassion for her."
Gradually, the reader does come to feel compassion for Woods. Hallowell not only shows us the life that Woods leads in Denver, which includes taking care of her sick brother, but also her personal history leading up to the fateful evening at Columbia University. It's a story set in the turbulent, emotional times of the Vietnam war. The beliefs of sons and daughters are set against the values of their own parents as American living rooms became increasingly hostile places. It's easy for a smart, impressionable 19-year old to be lured into the world of violent student radicals after seeing the damage the war has inflicted on her beloved older brother.
More importantly to developing compassion, Hallowell shows us Woods' life after the bomb explodes. She gives us the story from a variety of viewpoints including those of her husband, the woman pursuing her and her brother Adam, a troubled Vietnam vet. These different narratives add texture and a scope that couldn't be achieved if we were with Doreen the whole time.
"I had to find ways to get into their skin," Hallowell says of the characters she writes. "You have to find the humanity of everyone you write about. There are memoirs about the subject, but as a memoir you only get your perspective. In fiction you have the freedom of telling the story from any perspective. That's what's powerful about fiction. I didn't even try first person with this book."
It's a good thing, too, because the scenes from Adam's point of view are among the most powerful she writes. Adam has some harrowing memories of cruelty and inhumanity from Vietnam that are floating to the surface of his hallucinating mind throughout the story. It's not the kind of writing that you'd expect from Hallowell. Her first book was the excellent novel The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn, a first-person tale of a teenager who might have the divine spirit in her set in a fairly tame Boulder. It hardly seemed like the resume of someone who would write searing scenes of the Vietnam War.
"When it became clear to me that Adam's story involved being a vet, I resisted it. I'm a woman. I had no business writing about a war that I couldn't have fought in. I talked to Nick Arvin (the author of Articles of War) and he told me some of the best war scenes were fiction. I decided to dip my toe in with some research and went to the Vet center in Boulder. One of the vets told me that everybody in the war knows the war from the 10 feet around them. Everyone's experience was insular and different. That gave me the confidence to write the scenes."
Once you read this novel it's almost impossible to think of Doreen as a terrorist. Her mistake, which haunts every day of her life, seems like a terrible youthful indiscretion. It pales in comparison to the atrocities that Adam witnessed in Vietnam. When a grandstanding politician refers to her as a fugitive terrorist at the end of the novel, it is jarring. Surely Doreen Woods isn't what we mean when we talk of the war on terror.
But it's our contemporary situation that gives this novel such resonance. Hallowell might be writing of the anti-war movement in the 1970s, but its impossible to read She Was without thinking of Iraq and our grappling with how to handle terrorism now.
"When I proposed the book, I had to stick to my guns and say 'I think this is going to be timely'", Hallowell said. "If we'd pulled out of Iraq, I wonder how easy it would have been to sell the book. It has to be relevant to what's happening now. I'm pleased it's coming out before the election. After the election, things could really change in Iraq. A novel has to work in a timeless way, but it taps into the zeitgeist of today and that is nice."
Hallowell will be speaking about and signing She Was at the Boulder Book Store on May 8 at 7:30 p.m.
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