cover image A Book of American Martyrs

A Book of American Martyrs

Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $29.99 (768p) ISBN 978-0-06-264304-9

On Nov. 2, 1999 in Muskegee Falls, Ohio, a self-described “soldier of God” named Luther Dunphy loads a shotgun, drives to an abortion clinic near his home, and guns down Dr. Augustus Voorhees as he arrives at work. In this chilling novel, bestselling author Oates (Carthage) approaches one of America’s enduringly divisive topics through the lens of a sprawling family epic. The bulk of the novel deals with the shooting’s aftermath and its impact on the daughters of Dunphy and Voorhees—two women whose lives are permanently shifted by their fathers’ legacy for opposite sides of the contentious abortion-rights debate. Divided into five sections, the book begins by delving into the lives of Dunphy (now on death row) and Voorhees before the narrative finally coalesces around Naomi Voorhees’s floundering attempts to understand her family, leading her to a career in documentary filmmaking and a surprising connection with Dawn “The Hammer of Jesus” Dunphy, whose anger and aggression propel her into a championship-level boxing career. Unfortunately, some of the emotional nuance is thinly developed, with the majority of the characters standing as archetypes of opposing worldviews. Nevertheless, Oates’s sprawling tale presents a sensitively painted portrait of the inextricable quality of grief and the weight of family legacy, showing how unexpected connections can bind people together in counterintuitive ways. (Feb.)