Sunday, April 22, 2018

American Woman by Susan Choi

The year is 1974 and Japanese-American Jenny Shimada is working as a restoration specialist in an old house in upstate New York.  Her work is meticulous and the elderly woman whose house it is is excited to have such beautiful work done and at such a low price.  Jenny can't complain about the pay or long hours.  She is on the run from the FBI and has been for several years.  She and her boyfriend made bombs and exploded several buildings in support of the anti-war effort for Vietnam.  He was captured and is serving a long term in federal prison.  Jenny went underground and is living a lonely life with only tenuous connections to the movement to sustain her.

Then one of her contacts insists on seeing her.  He recruits her to go help three other people in the movement who are staying in a farmhouse but cannot be seen in the nearby town.  They need someone like Jenny to act as their front, running errands while they write a book about their experiences.  Their experiences are from San Francisco where they kidnapped the wealthy daughter of a millionaire newspaper mogul.  Although the parents paid the ransom, the daughter did not return but re-emerged several months later as a willing participant in a bank robbery, having joined the terrorist organization herself.  Jenny agrees to help the three individuals, a married couple from the original group and the heiress who is now called Pauline.  She lives with the couple until an event ends their stay there then Jenny goes on the run with Pauline.  They manage to avoid the manhunt for another year until they are captured.

Readers who are older will not read far before they realize this is the story of Patty Hearst.  Her kidnapping and reemergence as a participant in the activities of the Symbionese Liberation Army were one of the major stories of the Vietnam War era.  Jenny is, in real life, Wendy Yoshimura, a Japanese-American woman born in the relocation camps of World War II who grew up to rebel against the society that could do such a thing to her family.  The women's struggle to understand each other and the gradual change in them while on the run explores all the nuances of the terrorist and anti-war experience of that time.  The story is told through Jenny's eyes and that distance gives the reader new ways to think about this story.  This book is recommended for literary and historical fiction readers.

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