A Book of American Martyrs
By Joyce Carol Oates
HarperCollins Publishers, 736 pp., $29.99
February 7, 2017
Abortion is unique among social issues in the United States. Most of them are contingent on religious beliefs; LGBT rights, for example, have been opposed on almost wholly religious grounds, since no coherent argument can be made without invoking religious standards. An abortion opponent, on the other hand, need not invoke religion to argue for rights of a fetus – even though the divide is largely correlated to religious beliefs. No issue has been more explosive in the culture wars, either, with those opposing it often setting themselves on a moral crusade and those offering support, vigorously defending their individual rights.
This chasm is the subject of Joyce Carol Oates latest book, A Book of American Martyrs. Luther Amos Dunphy believes he is acting on God’s orders when he murders Augustus Vorhees, an abortion provider, in the small town of Muskegee Falls, OH. Vorhees had been no less convinced of the morality of his actions and strongly believed in helping others have control of their own lives. While Vorhees is dead, Dunphy goes to death row and each man’s families are left to rebuild the remainder of their lives. As both families confront this disturbing horror, it becomes readily apparent that the moral perspective of each individual is not so black and white.
Through flashbacks, we learn much more about Dunphy and Vorhees. Dunphy was a womanizer when he was younger, living in Sandusky. Searching for direction, he finds Jesus, who he is attracted to because he felt invited to serve him, rather than the normal lectures of guilt he was used to receiving. After baptism, Dunphy attends St. Paul Missionary Church and he travels at night to the Toledo School of Ministry as his faith deepens. One time in class he is asked about the rise of atheism and bans on prayer in public schools and he reflexively replies, “It is the will of Satan.” He also examines the book A Book of Martyrs by John Foxe around the same time, a book detailing Protestant suffering at the hands of the Catholic Church.
The Vorhees family is from Ann Arbor, MI. (A coincidence or a mirror of the Ohio State – Michigan rivalry?) Augustus Vorhees’ attends the University of Michigan, where he meets his eventual wife. He devotes himself tirelessly to acting in ways he believes help others. Often, he was the last to leave his office and never turned away women seeking his help. He also faces constant protests and threats as well as the taunt of “baby killer.”
Each family member of the two men respond in their own way, but each is also clearly shattered. In their commonality of seeking retribution and finding grief, we discover just how much they had in common the entire time.
Juxtaposed with abortion, is capital punishment, as Dunphy sits on death row waiting to be executed. It is a supreme irony in the United States that the vast majority opposed to abortion because of the sacredness of life, have no moral problems with capital punishment; those most strongly opposed to capital punishment are often the ones most in favor of abortion rights. It is chilling and touching to read Oates’ account of Dunphy’s children reading about the details of lethal injection. When the execution finally takes place, two hours are needed. Two extremely agonizing hours.
American Martyrs is a deep and complicated meditation on the state of political and cultural discourse today. Everyone regardless of background is treated with respect by the author. Beyond the provocation to self-examination that is found in the work, it is also enjoyable to read, even if at times the subject matter is challenging and even disturbing.
Rather than advocate too strongly for either side, Oates demonstrates with phenomenal skill that we can always strive to understand people who see the world differently than ourselves. It’s a message we all need now more than ever.