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0:00 Search For Absolution Award-winning novelist Alice McDermott’s “Absolution,” explores the experience of two very different women in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1963. As American wives […]

Published January 11, 2024 3:18 PM
3 min read

0:00

Search For Absolution

Award-winning novelist Alice McDermott’s “Absolution,” explores the experience of two very different women in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1963. As American wives of men employed by the military or State Department, their primary role was to serve as domestic support, “helpmeets” for their ambitious husbands.

In this unfamiliar world, some wives embraced what they found in their new homes, while others simply transported their American stateside lives and values to their new domain, down to their garden parties, Manhattan cocktails, and station wagons.

Tricia, a reserved newlywed, is enlisted by the beautiful and bossy mother-of-three, Charlene, to participate in her charitable schemes to “do good.” It starts with marketing “Saigon Barbies,” a Vietnamese-attired Barbie dressed by a housekeeper with seamstress skills, and escalates into more dangerous and questionable efforts that lead Tricia to be faced with complicated moral choices.

Decades later, Tricia is contacted by Charlene’s daughter, and looks back at her experience of “what it was like for us, in those days. Us wives.” McDermott has an exceptional ability to capture the nuances of her character’s lives and convey emotions that resonate with authenticity. Through a mosaic of memories, Tricia recounts the struggles, desires, and regrets of the era.

McDermott doesn’t venture into the politics of America’s involvement in Vietnam, as much as the characters’ belief in their mission as a kind of patriotic, even divine, intervention – fighting against communism and for the American way of life. The narrative offers a keen exploration of the complexities of faith and altruism. What’s yielded is a thought-provoking consideration of motives – personal and national – and multi-layered quests for absolution.

Pulitzer prize-winning author Paul Harding’s latest novel, “This Other Eden,” a finalist for National Book Award for Fiction, was short-listed for the 2023 Booker Prize.

The novel was inspired by the true story of a remote island off the coast of Maine inhabited by a desperately poor group of racially integrated islanders. Malaga, the island, was discovered in 1792 by a runaway slave and his Irish wife.

More than a century later, in 1912, a government committee in Maine, armed with the racist philosophy of Eugenics (a belief that advocates improving the genetic quality of the population), ruled for the eviction of the entire community. Deeming the inhabitants inferior and damaged, the government forced them to evacuate and eventually made plans to develop the island as a future vacation locale.

Harding turns that history into a Biblical tale about a fictional Apple Island whose devastation was initiated by a missionary’s zeal. In the story, Matthew, a teacher turned missionary, draws the attention of the mainland. He’s interested in teaching Latin and Shakespeare to the children yet confesses his “repulsion” toward the “Negro” adults. A Governor’s Council Committee declares “the pauper colony on so-called Apple Island, for years a disgrace to the adjacent communities and a blot upon the State.”

Matthew secures an escape plan for Ethan, a light-skinned and artistic young man, but later realizes he may not have succeeded in rescuing him. His narrative perspective, wrestling with the remorse of what he sets off versus the righteousness of his intention, is a poignant portrayal of conflict and the desire for absolution. 

The descendants on the island have found family, love, and home. They live off what they can glean from the land, each other, and their spiritual connection to the forces of nature. One man even lives in a hollow tree. But the fragility of this other Eden, their haven, is fleeting, as Harding’s prose tells a lyrical story of dignity and survival.

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