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A Book of American Martyrs

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A powerfully resonant and provocative novel from American master and New York Times bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates. In this striking, enormously affecting novel, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of two very different and yet intimately linked American families.

Luther Dunphy is an ardent Evangelical who envisions himself as acting out God's will when he assassinates an abortion provider in his small Ohio town while Augustus Voorhees, the idealistic doctor who is killed, leaves behind a wife and children scarred and embittered by grief.

In her moving, insightful portrait, Joyce Carol Oates fully inhabits the perspectives of two interwoven families whose destinies are defined by their warring convictions and squarely-but with great empathy-confronts an intractable, abiding rift in American society.

A Book of American Martyrs is a stunning, timely depiction of an issue hotly debated on a national stage but which makes itself felt most lastingly in communities torn apart by violence and hatred.

752 pages, ebook

First published February 7, 2017

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About the author

Joyce Carol Oates

894 books7,785 followers
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is also the recipient of the 2005 Prix Femina for The Falls. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and she has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. Pseudonyms ... Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 717 reviews
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,455 followers
August 7, 2017
736 pages in 4 days, wow. 500 of them were great, too. But then, well, not so great. Joyce Carol Oates falls into a trap which she carefully dug herself.

The story is about the shotgun murder of an abortionist doctor by an evangelical Christian guy. There have been eleven such murders in the USA between 1993 and 2015. JCO brilliantly narrates this crime from the killer’s point of view and then from everyone else’s. The rest of the book is about how the two families thus gruesomely conjoined cope, and the answer in each case is very badly. Mothers abandon their children, the two fathers are either dead or in jail, brothers and sisters seem to hate each other, the repercussions just keep on repercussing. The two eldest daughters in each family become the main focus of the whole thing, but everybody gets a look in, lots of cross-cutting between the major and minor characters, a real mosaic. Great stuff.
So this is my kind of thing, the big bold social activist novel, going beyond the tabloid headlines to unearth the moral complexities and blah blah blah you know.

Now the big problem. JCO’s novel presents the killer Luther Dunphy as a semi-literate working class Midwesterner, a nasty bully and rapist until he got religion, when he gradually transposed into a murderer. This novel is not a great advert for the Christian religion. The only Christians in this book are nutters. Meanwhile, the victim, Dr Augustus Voorhees, is vastly cultured, wonderfully warm and articulate, an adored if absent father, and after his decease, universities are falling over themselves to commemorate his life in some hifalutin way, foundations are established and blah blah blah, the works.

Well, that’s kind of the way it would be. The shooters in these cases usually could not tell a Mondrian from a first edition Proust and the doctors are, you know, educated. True. But then Naomi the doctor’s unhappy lost daughter is contacted by her long lost paternal grandmama who turns out to be a philosophy professor living at 110 Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, which is very specifically mentioned and described, and is a real place too.

Then we get the real high-culture porn – Naomi goes to live with Grandma and is immediately is smothered in Philip Glass concerts, Moma exhibitions, introductions to Janet Malcolm (!) and Edmund White (!) and elegant dinner parties in the manner of Mena Suvari being smothered by those gorgeous red rose petals in American Beauty. This goes on for pages. Then Naomi finds out by chance that the daughter of the killer is now a professional female boxer. So we then get a hundred or so pages about female boxing, which is a sport in which two women from the lower depths of American society beat each other senseless for very little money to the indifference of the crowd who still don’t give a stuff for female boxing.

What is JCO demonstrating so clearly here? Well, the middle class, you see, is so much – how can I put this delicately – better than the working class. And New York is so much better than wherever it was, er, oh yes, Ohio, and all those dreadful Midwest places. The only people who live there are fundamentalist Neanderthals.

No, I don’t think JCO meant to leave the reader with anything like those sentiments, but in this novel, that is what you kind of come away thinking. Don’t go to Ohio!

But the first 500 pages are a blast, so 4 stars.

Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,032 reviews48.4k followers
February 7, 2017
Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, “A Book of American Martyrs,” arrives splattered with our country’s hot blood. As the Republican Congress plots to cripple Planned Parenthood and the right to choose hinges on one vacant Supreme Court seat, “American Martyrs” probes all the wounds of our abortion debate. Indeed, it’s the most relevant book of Oates’s half-century-long career, a powerful reminder that fiction can be as timely as this morning’s tweets but infinitely more illuminating. For as often as we hear that some novel about a wealthy New Yorker suffering ennui is a story about “how we live now,” here is a novel that actually fulfills that promise, a story whose grasp is so wide and whose empathy is so boundless that it provides an ultrasound of the contemporary American soul.

The opening pages explode. Immediately we’re there, inside the head of. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Shannon A.
321 reviews19 followers
November 7, 2016

I'll be honest: in all my years of selling books, I had never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates. As I sit here in my sublime book-hangover, I can't believe I waited this long to find my way to reading what Oates has given to the literary world. I'm not sure I can write a review worthy enough to express how this raw and striking tale of two families is told.
An exquisite portrait of one most provocative topics of our time told with unexpected and deep intimacy.
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,085 reviews222 followers
May 20, 2017
JCO has written a lot of really great books and some not so great ones but I feel like this is her masterpiece. She is unafraid to take on some of the most controversial topics. The book is primarily about an abortion doctor who is shot down in cold blood in his clinic but it it told though the eyes of his daughter as she tries to make sense of it. There is also the the religious nut job who shot him and his experience on death row and quite a bit about one of his daughters who is a female wrestler. It's about a lot of stuff. Some of Oates' critics say that she is too wordy and I there have been times when I agreed with this but this wasn't one of them.
Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews515 followers
August 1, 2017
Fathers, Be Good to Your Daughters

In Brief:*

Oates steps up to brew a tempest around the debates over legalized abortion in the U.S.--mostly moral now, rather than legal. She gives a chilling voice and multilayering to an assassin "of the Lord," then much less of a character in the killed abortion doctor, as the novel leads up to the murders, followed by excellent alternating chapters showing the tragic and long-lingering aftershocks suffered by the families--focusing on the daughter--of each of the two men.

I found it intriguing, realistic, somewhat profound, imaginative with respect to the daughter of the killer who grows up to be a female boxer, and the pace relentless. Themes include the significance of life, death, birth, adoption, religion and its role in society, feminism and the class divide.

I recommend it if you want an intro to Joyce Carol Oates, the uber-strange bird who emits flashes brilliance, and if you don't mind lengthy books. This is closer to brilliant, much better than We Were the Mulvaneys.

I particularly applaud Oates for toeing the line between both sides of the moral debate over abortion and for capturing the essence and complexities of the murdering father, a man lesser authors would have likely given stock treatment as a backwards villain. As we know though, things are never nearly so black and white.

*I'm afflicted by perfectionism, having fought it since I first put pencil to paper. I say this to explain that I have at least 100 books I've read over the past couple of years for which I still need to write a review. With my defect, I start writing a review and put it aside for improvements, and again, and again. I simply do not have the time to write full reviews on everything of the quality I would like. So, I've made the executive decision to write short "reviews" on some of the backlog. I call it "In Brief," not only because of the brevity but also because the term is near and dear to my lawyer heart.
Profile Image for Sub_zero.
698 reviews275 followers
January 18, 2021
«Lo "impersonal" es nuestra salvación. Es donde todos nos encontramos, lo que rompe la soledad del yo.»

La escritora estadounidense Joyce Carol Oates (Nueva York, 1938) aborda en esta colosal novela una de las cuestiones más polémicas y divisivas de la sociedad contemporánea; un tema, el aborto, capaz de encender a masas enfervorecidas que, desde sus particulares trincheras, libran en la novela de Oates una cruenta guerra ideológica de consecuencias tan imprevisibles como demoledoras. En medio de esta contienda de proporciones -y repercusiones- bíblicas, Luther Dunphy se erige como el particular soldado mesiánico que, arrebatado por visiones divinas, la emprende a tiros contra un reconocido médico abortista, Augustus Voorhees, frente a la puerta de la clínica donde practica impunemente el «asesinato de inocentes».

Tras un espectacular arranque, Oates pasa a profundizar en la vida de Dunphy, elaborando un retrato bastante minucioso que nos habla de una vida desdichada y contradictoria en su mayor parte, una vida poblada de frustraciones, culpabilidad religiosa y episodios de violencia inusitada que se ocultan tras una artificial pátina de hombre familiar, virtuoso e intachable. Justo cuando la construcción de Dunphy como personaje no me podía estar pareciendo más estereotipada y maniquea, Oates le da un vuelco a la novela y nos pone en la piel de Naomi Voorhees, la hija del médico asesinado. A través de un compendio de textos, entrevistas, recuerdos y otros fragmentos, tanto verídicos como imaginados, Naomi trata de reconstruir la vida de su padre a modo de documental, perfilando el idealismo político de Augustus Voorhees y su compromiso con los derechos de las mujeres como una suerte de obsesiva cruzada personal que acabará desintegrando el hogar de Naomi.

Es entonces cuando te das cuenta de que, más que una novela sobre el aborto y su posible o no legitimación, Joyce Carol Oates parece haber escrito una crónica brutal sobre dos familias desestructuradas por las decisiones de sus líderes. Los mártires pagan con sus vidas, parece apuntar Oates, pero las consecuencias definitivamente se ensañan con los supervivientes. La novela recorre las trayectorias paralelas de Naomi y Dawn, hijas respectivas de Gus y Luther, desde la complicada adolescencia, marcada por la inestabilidad, la precariedad y el rencor estratificado, hasta la entrada en la edad adulta, no menos benévola con las protagonistas. Tras escapar del lugar donde asesinaron a su padre y de la posterior avalancha mediática, Naomi emprende el camino de regreso hasta el origen de su dolor, no se sabe muy bien si en busca de venganza, de consuelo o de iluminación. Por su parte, Dawn, que parece haber heredado la íntima conexión espiritual de su padre con las deidades cristianas, se convertirá en una emergente estrella del boxeo femenino.

No hay duda de que Un libro de mártires americanos contiene momentos de sobrecogedora dureza y deslumbrante crítica. La mirada de Oates resulta certera e implacable en su análisis de la sociedad estadounidense más lobotomizada y creo que, en líneas generales, es una novela sólida y bien resuelta, teniendo en cuenta las dimensiones que tiene. No obstante, no he disfrutado de su lectura como me gustaría, en parte por la desconexión que he sentido con el conflicto de los personajes principales, en parte porque el estilo me resultaba a menudo demasiado artificioso y superfluo. El clímax de la novela, aunque predecible, pone un fantástico broche final a una obra valiente y ambiciosa que conseguirá poner en entredicho cualquier ángulo desde el que te acerques a ella.
Profile Image for Sarah.
731 reviews73 followers
May 7, 2017
At the beginning of this book we have the murder of one man by another. The murdered man is an abortion doctor and the second commits the murder believing that it was God's will. We spend quite awhile in the murderer's head and it became quite claustrophobic at times. We hear about his life as a child and then an adult, along with his conversion to Christianity. I admit that I disliked Luther, the murderer, and I struggled with his part the most.

I don't know what Oates's personal beliefs are. This book addresses abortion, murder, and the death penalty in tough ways but her opinion was never clear to me. Instead we get a story about the disastrous fallout that this incident has on the families of the two men. Each has a wife, a son, and at least one daughter. The perspectives of each daughter are the dominant pieces of the book, although others are featured. The fallout includes everything from mental breakdowns to sexual assault and it was devastating all along, even when I didn't particularly like the character that was the POV at the time. These were very human characters so my opinion of them often varied.

This book choked me up several times and made me cry at the very end. I completely loved it and it ended up on my all time favorites shelf, as well as being the best book I've read this year. There is no true way to express the power that this book had. It was brilliant and intense and deeply personal while being entirely about experiences that I've never had. I will be reading much more of Oates's work.

The audiobook was narrated by multiple characters and was well done.
Profile Image for Nathan.
244 reviews47 followers
March 17, 2017
I loved this. Joyce Carol Oates is a master. Every aspect of her writing in this book worked for me. It was thought-provoking. The plot pulled me right through its 700+ pages. The characters were distinct and interesting - I especially liked Dawn. The action scenes were vivid. Language, setting, dialog, structure, voice, style...all the things that I ever think about when I experience "the novel" as an art form...here they are and WOW! I hope that sometime in the next few years, I read the Pulitzer-winner before the prize is awarded. Who knows what else will come out in 2017, but this feels like it could be the book to nab the 2018 prize. It definitely speaks to the American experience.
Profile Image for Sallie Dunn.
577 reviews40 followers
February 3, 2020
The description for this book is accurate: it’s very provocative. Three point five stars for this tragic insight to abortion, abortion providers, and the aftermath when the unspeakable happens. Sort of depressing, the angst experienced by two very different families after Luther Dunphy takes out Gus Vorhees, the doctor who provides women’s health services including abortion in rural Ohio. In case you think I’m writing spoilers, this happens at the very beginning of the story. Really the story of two daughters, one is the murdered man’s daughter and the other is the murderer’s. I don’t know what I expected: I’ve read Joyce Carol Oates sporadically over the years and all her books have a serious dark undertone. I also cheated a little and read a number of Goodread’s reader reviews before I started this 700 page plus tome. One in particular said the last 200 pages bogged down for him, but I thought those were the best and pushed my rating higher. If you’re in the mood for dark, serious and current, this might be the right choice for you.
Profile Image for Meg.
38 reviews
February 6, 2017
From the first page until the last, Oates passionately displays her unique ability to break her readers' hearts. The expression of pain, grief, loss, & the desire for (& still the absence of) redemption keeps one turning the page as if this were a task of utmost importance- the completion of this novel. Her characters, even minor ones, are fully realised, their suffering a vibrant, complex tapestry that is jarring, touching, destructive. This work, this piece of fiction is absolutely vital to any person with a heart.
Profile Image for Judy.
1,674 reviews280 followers
April 28, 2017
I could not put this book down. For Joyce Carol Oates I will gladly set aside a week but I read it in three days! Coming practically on the heels of Brit Bennett's The Mothers, I was not sure I was ready for another novel on the abortion dispute. But since I have chosen to read and write about books as my form of activism in these divided times, I dove in.

Joyce Carol Oates goes at the issue from a different direction than Brit Bennett did. Here we have two men who are willing, you could even say eager, to die for their beliefs regarding a woman's right to decide about her own body and her own reproductive role. In fact, in this novel, we never directly see the issue from a pregnant woman's viewpoint.

Luther Dunphy, the evangelical killer of an abortion doctor, is unmistakably a JCO creation. He is quite nearly insane or at least an example of how a religious belief system can intermingle with a human being's weaknesses and drive him to insane behavior. However, Dr Augustus Vorhees has his own demons driving him to take the liberal view of a woman's rights to equal extremes. Both men endanger their wives and leave their children bewildered and lost.

I did not expect a pleasant read but I was impressed by the sure-handedness with which the author covered a large and complex issue that has its roots deep in the American psyche. She also shows through the children and wives of these two men, that as divided as we appear to be, our deepest hopes and fears come from similar places. In the final denouement, which I confess I did see coming, she even offers some hope.

Joyce Carol Oates is a strong cup of tea, not to all readers' liking. If you do like her, or want to read her for the first time, I can guarantee you will not have wasted your time. Also, whatever side of the fence you are on, you will find a clearer understanding of the other side.
Profile Image for Joleigh.
43 reviews4 followers
March 5, 2017
This book was extremely difficult for me to read. As a feminist and supporter of NOW, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood, I had great trouble reading this and had to stop and leave it because it was so painful. I had to return because as an author Oates makes you want to know where she is going.

Oates has touched a place in American history and culture that is like pouring alcohol on an open wound; it hurts like hell but needs to happen for the wound to heal. This book is so appropriate to the times in which we live.

I do not know who should read this. Can I recommend it? I am not sure. It has left me very uneasy, with many conflicting thoughts. But, shouldn't good literature do this!
Profile Image for Michele.
617 reviews167 followers
May 27, 2018
The title of this book is a riff on Foxe's Book of Martyrs, popularly known as the Book of English Martyrs, which detailed the suffering of Protestant sects and/or individuals under Catholic rulers of England and Scotland. First published in 1563, the book went through numerous editions (and was plundered for lurid detail by later authors).

Similarly, this book delves in excruciating detail into the suffering -- both immediate/direct and subsequent/collateral -- arising from the deaths of two uniquely American forms of martyr: Augustus Voorhees, outspoken pro-choice doctor who performs abortions (among other things) and who is murdered as he arrives at a clinic one morning, and Luther Dunphy, evangelical Christian who kills Voorhees to protect the unborn and is later executed for the murder. Both men give their lives for something they believe in passionately, both families are devastated as a result, and the reader is left with the distinct feeling that neither death accomplished anything at all.

Some have argued that the book is a bit heavy-handed in the stereotypical attributes piled on the Dunphy clan as uneducated, anti-science, religious fundamentalists (about the only trope omitted is that Luther's wife Edna Mae isn't also his cousin). However, the Voorhees side of the story also exemplifies negative conceptions of liberals as over-educated, impractical, entitled, and paternalistic. And both ends of the spectrum obviously fail their children to an equal degree.

This isn't a happy book or a pleasant/easy read. You won't come away from it feeling good. But it is well-crafted: all the characters are sympathetic in one way or another. The more one thinks about the story the more parallels emerge, creating a kind of hall of mirrors, and the more nuances and complexities are revealed. It is also thought-provoking, not least because the ultimate moral of the story is both topical and timeless: When we fall into rigid ideologies that demand we view the other side as an implacable enemy, something less than human with whom there can be no compromise and no quarter, everyone suffers.

One minor nit: The cover of my edition had some squibs from reviewers on it, and the one right above the title was something about "this is Trump's America." This annoyed me, and I wish the publisher hadn't chosen it. It's giving Trump far too much credit (the evidence is pretty clear that he doesn't give a damn about abortion one way or the other, all he cares about is getting pro-life votes) and at the same time it lets many others off too easily (the Republican platform, the party's guiding document, supports a constitutional amendment to make abortion illegal in all circumstances -- and has done so for almost forty years). Demoting Trump to the status of former rather than current POTUS won't change that.
Profile Image for Jessica Sullivan.
518 reviews428 followers
October 10, 2017
This powerful, sprawling novel begins with the murder of an abortion doctor by a right-wing evangelical Christian, then goes on to provide an in-depth character study of the families on both sides, examining the legacy of "martyrdom" and the effect it has on those left behind.

Oates, smartly, refrains from injecting her own moral judgments. Instead, she moves from one character to another, writing them as they perceive themselves and each other, so that we the readers can make our own. This approach yields a complex understanding of each character.

There's a specific focus throughout on the eldest daughters of each family as they attempt to find meaning and purpose in the absence of their fathers and the aftermath of their broken families.

With a relentless pace that moves quickly in spite of the carefully detailed prose and 700+ pages, Oates delivers a profound, raw and achingly intimidate novel—a visceral and stunning portrait of grief and consequences amid the backdrop of a contentious social issue.
Profile Image for LaMesha.
64 reviews15 followers
July 8, 2017
Thought provoking, Intense, Real, Gut wrenching, Satisfying, & Heartbreaking literary fiction! My God! Joyce Carol Oates is a genius. She managed to write a novel about a topic that would cause a normal person to lean more to one side. She did not! She didn't cut corners, or sugar coat this issue. And that ending was simply perfect. "Tears"
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,425 reviews2,498 followers
February 26, 2018
Is there anyone other than JCO, I wonder, who could have written this book? Opening with the shooting of a doctor who performs abortions by a Christian fundamentalist who figures his act as 'justified homicide' rather than murder (and what of the ex-Army bodyguard who he also shoots?), this goes on to explore not just the emotive issue of a woman's right to control her own body vs. the anti-abortion lobby, but a whole range of other issues: class, education, patriarchy, the death penalty, grief and healing.

The story spans the years from 1999 when Luther Dunphy shoots Gus Voorhees, past 9/11 and onto 2012 when the two daughters of shooter and victim come back together. For this is not just an exploration of an act of sickening religious and ideological violence, but also a look at how an public, political act has private and personal consequences that stretch forward in time.

It's perhaps difficult for those of us brought up in the UK to comprehend what a divisive and emotionally-loaded issue the whole question of abortion rights is in the US. And the record of how much abuse and pressure doctors and other staff are subject to is truly shocking, as is the way the family of an 'abortion doctor', as his detractors term him (conveniently forgetting the number of babies and mothers lives saved through his medical interventions such as caesarians) are under constant threat of bullying, abuse and violence.

JCO is nuanced in her approach: while on one hand we witness Dunphy's biblical rhetoric which pronounces all abortion wrong (even in cases of rape, incest, cancer of the uterus, for example), while we see his put-upon wife refusing to have her children vaccinated since it reveals a lack of trust in god: despite all this, Luther is not devoid of the reader's sympathy with some agonising scenes in the centre of the book that are harrowing to read.

Voorhees, too, is no angel and his dedication to his upholding of feminist rights lead to him neglecting, to some extent, his wife and family. I don't think we're in any doubt where JCO's own allegiances lie but she is balanced and subtle in writing the debate via her 'martyrs'.

So a book with intellectual substance as well as a compelling story of moral dilemmas and the family fallout from an act of unconscionable brutality. This is as much a book about daughters and fathers, about religious and ideological fundamentalism, about class and education as it is about abortion and reproductive rights.
Profile Image for George.
802 reviews84 followers
April 4, 2018

“So it is, the Little Hand clutches at the hearts of all.” (p. 20)

I didn’t much like Joyce Carol Oates’s, A Book of American Martyrs: A Novel. At 740 pages it was far too long; and, to me at least, her characters were, by-and-large, spectacularly uninteresting. Hardly a one among them with whom I’d care to have lunch. So why did I keep coming back and reading/finishing such a less than engaging tale? I can only guess it must have been unrequited optimism on my part.

I get it. The families/children of self-righteous martyrs suffer collateral damage. So what? (I must be getting jaded.)

Recommendation: I’ll not be tempted to read another novel by JCO. Plenty will. You choose.

“The death of an idealist, a selfless individual. That is the price the individual must pay, pitting himself against the black tide of ignorance and superstition.” (p. 540).

HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, 740 pages.
Profile Image for Cody | CodysBookshelf.
723 reviews209 followers
July 3, 2022
Not only is this my new favorite Joyce Carol Oates novel (Blonde has finally been dethroned), and not only is this my favorite book I’ve read this year, there’s a serious consideration of it as my new all-time favorite book. Making such a claim mere hours after finishing reading isn’t smart, it’s hasty, I know. But.

This is one of the JCO novels I was sorta saving for a “rainy day”. With its subject matter and length I figured I’d like it, maybe love it. But the fact that I finished off a nearly 800-page book in a mere couple days should say something. I’m not the fastest reader.

In these days after the reversal of Roe v Wade this book has never been more potent, relevant. The dramas that unfold here are dramas we see every night on the news. The conversations had here are conversations I’ve had several times with friends and coworkers in the last few weeks. JCO has a special talent for getting in her characters’ heads, all of ‘em, and that talent is on full display here. Every character, every perspective is explored. It’s obvious JCO is pro-choice and has liberal politics, but she does an excellent job of putting that aside in order to tell what is simply a moving, gargantuan character-driven drama.
Profile Image for Tonstant Weader.
1,185 reviews66 followers
February 23, 2017
Joyce Carol Oates does not shy from controversy. A Book of American Martyrs is sure to become one of her most controversial since it centers on that most polarizing of American rifts–abortion. The martyrs in her book are Augustus Vorhees, a dedicated and idealist doctor who dares to offer women the totally legal medical services they need, and Luther Dunphy, the man who killed him for it. Of course, as is often the case, the martyrs merely die, it is their families who are crucified.

While we come to understand what motivates the husbands and fathers, Vorhees and Dunphy, the real story is what happens to their families, fractured and broken on the altars of their belief. Vorhees and Dunphy’s wives both collapse and retreat from their children, leaving them doubly bereft. The parallels continue, both have an older son and daughter who are closer to each other than the younger sibling(s) and whose bond is embittered by their father’s death.

The story focuses most on the daughters, Naomi Vorhees and Dawn Dunphy. Naomi begins to chronicle her father’s life, thinking of a possible documentary film, but really, trying to make sense of her life and her loss. Dawn seeks a career in professional boxing, a reaction to a vicious assault in high school, but also a way to find control and redemption and bind herself to her father. Naomi seeks Dawn out under the pretext of doing a documentary on female boxers, her actions profoundly predatory and compassionate at the same time, shameful and redemptive.

I was angry with Oates several times reading this book, but the truly great books do not leave us comfortable. I did not like all her choices, but that is not the reason I give a book five stars. It’s reserved for books that are fresh and different, that challenge, and yes, even anger me. I think most readers will be angered a few times reading the book. They will feel provoked, angered, enraged. They will grieve, even sob with compassion for the survivors. It is a rare person who will not be emotional wracked by this book.

I must confess that I cannot be dispassionate about this issue. I witness the suicide of a fourteen year old girl who threw herself from a parking garage after being terrorized by one of those fake crisis centers. I felt the rush of air displaced by her body, her blood and matter stained my clothes. Those anti-choice zealots drove her to despair, to suicide. I am sure they felt no remorse, only self-righteous satisfaction.

Oates was very successful at portraying Dunphy as more than a caricature of a murderous religious fanatic, adding reasons to sympathize with him, to perhaps understand how he came to be, but I don’t think he needed to lose a child or get his hours reduced to kill someone. He was a thug when he was young, a rapist, a violent man who masqueraded as decent for a time, but was given permission by the perversion of his religion to become a thug again, a murderer for Christ. He seemed to possess that toxic masculine bullying violence all his life and lost his temporary and always unsteady facade of decency.

Oates tries to throw a wrench in the works by having Vorhees’ mother confess to her granddaughter that she had tried to have an abortion when she was pregnant with Augustus. When she finally found someone willing to do the illegal surgery, the circumstances were such she was afraid she might die and she fled, having this child who grew up to be an abortion provider. She challenged her son, pointing out if abortions were legal when he was born, he never would have existed. It’s a fairly common anti-choice argument. I remember my former sister-in-law telling me a story when I was about ten or so about a woman who would have been saved from cancer by the cure discovered by her son, except she aborted him. It’s such a phony argument. After all, just as abortion ends the potential of one fetus, pregnancy ends the potential implantation of other eggs at a different moment. Yes, if aborted, Augustus Vorhees would not have existed, but his birth may have prevented the possible birth of some other child, someone who might have been as great or greater. It’s unknowable and a cheap argument, unworthy of Magdalena, the brilliant theorist.

I was puzzled by Vorhees’ widow Jenna. Her reaction to the murder of her husband seemed incongruous to her character before his death. Abandoning her children might have made sense if she were an indifferent mother before, but she was not. It felt wrong, but it certainly contributed to the trauma suffered by the Vorhees children and made their trauma parallel more closely the trauma suffered by Dunphy’s children, being talked about, feeling as though they lost both parents, not just one, in-school persecution and estrangement. It was heartbreaking for both families.

The two daughters, Naomi and Dawn, suffer the loss of their fathers, estrangement from their mothers, conflict with their siblings, and finding surprising help and support from unexpected quarters, Naomi from her grandmother and Dawn from her boxing coach and an elementary school teacher.

As you can tell from my review, A Book of American Martyrs is thought-provoking, sometimes so very perceptive, sometimes infuriating, but always alight with humanity.

A Book of American Martyrs will be released February 7th, 2017 by Harper Collins. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through Edelweiss.

Profile Image for Rosa María.
228 reviews37 followers
July 11, 2018
El libro tiene bastantes páginas, pesa, abulta y da mucho respeto, pero una vez que te adentras en sus páginas es como volver a encontrarte con una vieja amiga. Poco a poco, como si recorrieses una senda ya conocida, vas sumergiéndote en la historia, vives cada momento y comprendes cada postura e idea que la autora magistralmente nos presenta.

Con esta novela ha conseguido que me pare a reflexionar sobre temas muy controvertidos como el aborto, la pena de muerte, la religión y cómo afrontar la pérdida de un ser querido, y me ha enseñado que ninguno de estos temas tienen un único e irrefutable planteamiento o solución correcta, sino que cada persona tiene un punto de vista y una forma distinta de afrontar estas situaciones.

A través de la historia de dos familias con posturas contrapuestas principalmente con respecto al tema del aborto, conocemos dos versiones distintas de afrontar y considerar este y otros temas, y vemos cómo el fanatismo y el punto de vista radical consiguen que posiciones a priori muy distantes acaben pareciendose entre sí.

Por un lado tenemos a Luther Amos Dunphy, padre de familia, de profesión carpintero techador y persona muy religiosa, que está totalmente en contra del aborto y se siente llamado a ser un soldado de Dios, mártir y vergudo. Con este fin asesina a tiros a un médico abortista a las puertas de una clínica para mujeres.
Augustus "Gus" Voorhees, nuestro segundo protagonista, es también padre de familia, un médico que defiende el derecho a decidir de las mujeres y les ayuda a poder verlo hecho realidad. Una persona con una gran personalidad y muy comprometida con su trabajo, hasta el punto de ponerlo por delante hasta de su propia familia.

El asesinato desencadena el desastre en ambas familias y marcará a los miembros de las mismas para el resto de sus días. En este punto toman protagonismo otros dos personajes. Por un lado Naomi, la hija mediana de Gus, que se verá perdida y abandonada tras el asesinato de su padre, y que arrastrará a lo largo de los años la tristeza, el rencor y el odio. Por otro lado tenemos a Dawn, segunda hija de Luther, una muchacha retraída, tímida, poco agraciada y obsesionada con la religión y con llevar una vida acorde a sus creencias.

Con el paso de los años, ambas irán evolucionando y seremos testigos de cómo intentan sobreponerse a sus problemas y traumas, cada una a su manera y de la forma en que la vida se lo va permitiendo. Ambas son mujeres luchadoras, que han tenido que enfrentarse solas al mundo. Cada una va encontrando su camino hasta que hacia el final éstos se encuentran, llegando a poner un punto de entendimiento y esperanza donde sólo se preveía que iba a haber rechazo y odio.

Tengo que destacar un pasaje de la novela, en concreto la escena de la ejecución, que consiguió conmoverme y agobiarme de tal manera, que las lágrimas acabaron rodando por mis mejillas. Aunque no es difícil que yo llore con una historia, sí es difícil que me agobie y me quede dándole vueltas a la misma, y este libro lo ha conseguido con creces, por lo que para mí significa que es una gran historia, con pensamientos y sentimientos profundos que se quedan contigo durante mucho tiempo.

Por eso y aunque yo haya puntuado con un diez a esta magnífica obra, no puedo recomendarla a cualquier lector. Si tienes ganas de leer una historia de sentimientos, pensamientos e ideas, y no te dan miedo los tochos, aprovecha que es verano y hay más tiempo para leer y hazlo, seguro que lo disfrutas y te deja poso.

Profile Image for Raquel Casas.
281 reviews178 followers
September 5, 2018
«En los EEUU se libra una guerra religiosa por el corazón y la cabeza de los ciudadanos... de los votantes.
Hay una guerra.
Y en las guerras muere gente inocente».
Es difícil hablar de este libro en pocas palabras no sólo por la extensión del mismo sino también por la multitud de temas que toca en él partiendo de uno que sigue estando de actualidad: el aborto. Un médico defensor a ultranza del derecho de la mujer a elegir es asesinado por un carpintero extremista religioso contrario al aborto. Ambos se convierten en mártires de ambas causas.
Oates se centra entonces en cuatro mujeres: las dos viudas y cómo reaccionan al desaparecer los hombres en torno a los cuales giraban sus vidas y dos hijas que crecen a la sombra de esa tragedia.
Las #MaternidadesLit que tanto me apasionan también ocupan un lugar destacado en este libro que es un crisol de la sociedad norteamericana abarcando temas como la religión, la pena de muerte, la libertad, la exclusión social, la precaria situación profesional de las mujeres deportistas (especialmente las boxeadoras), el matrimonio, la manipulación ideológica...
Para mi, la mejor novela que he leído hasta ahora de esta autora imprescindible, y eso que soy una fan incondicional de Oates. Sin duda, merece la pena no dejarse intimidar por este tocho-libro y sumergirse entre sus páginas para devorarlas del tirón.
#joyita #JoyceCarolOates #Unlibrodemártiresamericanos #imprescindibles #misautorasdecabecera
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,493 reviews49 followers
February 26, 2017
This was a book that made you think. And more than about the abortion controversy. It made you think about how tragedies effect families and individuals.
JCO's portrayal of the "doctor"s" family was much more sympathetic than the grinding sadness of the "murderer's" family. And the discussion of suicide, late in the book, was very apt.
Profile Image for Lisasue.
87 reviews11 followers
January 26, 2019
One of the most thought-provoking novels that I've ever read...like...wake up in the middle of the night kind of thoughts. I have a few things to say on this one that are not completely redundant to other reviews, so....review to follow when I have more time.


After thinking for awhile, I have to say that I think that the point of this novel is not about the repulsiveness of Luther Dunphy's family vs. the elevated elegance of the Voorhees family. Some reviewers have said this, and I think that they're all wrong. The point of the novel, at least for me, is that both of these families have adult members who are just bad at being human , leaving their children in a lurch when tragedy strikes. It is easy to look at the surface of things in this novel, to be repulsed by the blind, narrow faith that warps the lives of the Dunphys into destructive knots, but in many ways, the Voorhees family is equally repulsive. While the Dunphy family is hampered by poverty, and a horrific destructive faith, the Voorhees family is educated, but manages to be completely out of touch with their emotions and the emotions of others much of the time. Luther Dunphy lacks a meaningful inner life, and fills it with scripture, and the domination of others. He memorizes scripture, but can't manage to write a decent sermon that involves his own interpretations. When jailed, he seems content; there are no decisions or the daily grind of personal sacrifice that is needed in family life. In comparison, the Voorhees adults do equally poorly. Grandmother Voorhees doesn't want to be a mother, so walks away from her toddler son, and initially can't bear the intimacy of her needy grand-daughter. Mother Voorhees? No better.

In the end, I think what makes us human, and not animal alone, is when we continue to reach out to other humans, to teach, to help, to nurture, to learn, to connect. Many of the characters in this novel fail to do this, for a variety of reasons, leaving their children to teach themselves how to be human, with varying levels of success. IMHO, the point that Joyce Carol Oates is trying to make is that we must have meaningful connections with other humans: mother/child, siblings, husband/wife to be functional humans. To be better humans, we must be part of a clan, of some kind. For me, that was the ultimate message of the novel. Life is messy. Life is complicated. There is rarely true black or white, good or evil. There is only just us, humans, making our way through it, hopefully with the help of other humans.
Profile Image for Leo Robertson.
Author 38 books435 followers
September 9, 2018

Almost no one can make me read beyond 400 pages anymore. But these flew by.

The book begins with a thriller-like opening, with the murder of an abortion doctor. From there, the author conjures a murderous religious fanatic's mindset, covers the affected families and their backgrounds, and how the crime resonates over time and distance, over generations.

JCO's prose is lean and self-assured and filled with interesting analogies and sensations that bring the text to life. I was amazed in fact that she wouldn't have used any like them in her preceding 5000 books.

And the core of this book is as alive and gripping as a Netflix true-crime courtroom documentary.

I think some reviewers were saying this was a balanced exploration of views on abortion. I can't tell if it's my own bias or not but I think it was about as balanced as the topic deserved (ie, didn't read too fairly on the "killing babies" side of it. By the way, if I ever hear a man use the phrase "killing babies", I stop believing he honestly holds a pro-life stance and is instead goading for his own entertainment or money or some other seedier reason.)

Give her her due, JCO sets up some interesting moral conundrums and paradoxes about the debate that I won't spoil. But it's never preachy. It's about the lives of these characters. JCO will on occasion point out, "It's of interest here that she's taking birth control" or "Watch how he reacts to the killing of an ordinary man instead of an abortion doctor." But it's framed in a way that allows the reader to ponder unattended.

I have two complaints:

- Mentioning 9/11. Writers have such a strange reaction to it. I can't tell if they bring 9/11 into their stories out of a sense of obligation or some weird sensational desire to profit from it. I don't think they can tell either but I've yet to read a single writer saying anything coherent or insightful about it.
- One quote reads "The story of Trump's America" on the cover. I hated carting that fucker's name about.
Profile Image for Krystelle Fitzpatrick.
609 reviews30 followers
July 2, 2020
This book is my first ever experience with a Joyce Carol Oates novel, and I have to say that I'm very, very impressed. This book follows so many social issues, but primarily the murder of an abortionist in a small town by a religious man who truly believes he is carrying out the will of G-d, and the aftershocks that the shooting causes. It is over 700 pages, and I could not put it down. I finished it in a day, and didn't want it to end. The cross-section of human life and pain is so wonderfully done in this book, and I found myself so involved in the stories of every individual that it was absolutely fascinating.

The independent voices of the characters were masterful- whilst they raised real revulsion in me at times, I also felt a great affection for others, and to have a book give such a range of emotions was wonderful. It's not often that a book manages such incredible range, and while there's so much more I could talk about with this title, the most I can do is just say it's best you read it for yourself.
Profile Image for Paula DeBoard.
Author 10 books485 followers
October 1, 2017
Me: I'm too busy to dig into anything new right now.

*starts 752-page book*


There were a few times I almost turned away from this one. It was long, and the subject matter was extremely heavy, and I felt myself being dragged down into the world of the Voorheeses/Dunphys every time I picked it back up. Of course--that's part of Oates's skill as a writer, and it's what kept me reading: a story was being told, and I suspected it was going to build to something amazing.

And it did. That ending. *wipes tear* *wonders why I haven't read absolutely everything Oates has written*
Profile Image for Thing Two.
971 reviews49 followers
March 19, 2018
This is an ARC review.

The book is ambitious, and long, but I don't think she entirely pulls off the dual empathic look at both sides of an issue that was promised. What she does well is show the devastation each family suffered after the actions of one man who, hyped up by his community, shoots two others outside an abortion clinic. But after that it's a long rambling storyline of minor events in various members of each family.
Profile Image for Dna.
629 reviews20 followers
April 5, 2017
I have too many good books waiting to waste time on this fragmented pile of slop. Intriguing premise, but contains some of Oates' most awful, lifeless and flat writing.
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