A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (2018)

spark of light

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them. Every day he was reminded of their grit, their courage in the face of obstacles, the quiet grace with which they shouldered their troubles. They were stronger than any man he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger then the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they had designed laws specifically to keep women down.” 325

A mentally unstable, religious fanatic enters a women’s health center — the last center in the state of Mississippi that offers abortions — with a gun and opens fire. What follows is a blood bath, for certain, but also the author’s exploration of the private lives some of many, many women (and men) who visit, work at, and rely on women’s health centers across the country.

Going a step further, Picoult also attempts to explore the rationale behind the pro-life protestors who work tirelessly (outside the clinic and in the Mississippi state legislator) to block access to abortions; the mindset of the loved ones of the women who visit the Center; and even the women who cannot get care at places such as the Center and the dire choices that they face due to lack of access.

“[The doctor] imagined what it felt like for them — to have made a decision that came at a colossal emotional and financial cost — and then to have that decision called into question. Not to mention the implication that they were not capable of managing their own healthcare…Those white men with their signs and slogans were not really there for the unborn, but there for the women who carried them. They couldn’t control women’s sexual independence. This the next best thing.” 58

When George Goddard drives hours from his home in rural Mississippi to the Center in Jackson, he has only divine vengeance on his mind. His reasoning: the people in the clinic end lives and, as a punishment, God has ordained him to end theirs. He has no real understanding of what happens in the clinic — despite his pastor’s attempts to convince George that is is a factory in which women are unwillingly forced to have gruesome and nearly fatal abortions — and so the situation he finds inside the Center is confusing for him.

“[George] had pictured himself like an avenging angel, swollen to comic-book-hero proportions, bursting through the doors of the clinic and leaving destruction in his wake. Revenge, in theory, throbbed with adrenaline and was clean with conviction. In reality, it was rushing into a house on fire and forgetting to map out your exit.” 103

He does not find a torture chamber, staffed with evil doctors; but instead a small women’s clinic, staffed when nurses, social workers, doctors. The Center is being visited not by those imagined “loose and immoral women,” but regular women. Some of those women are there for abortions, but George cannot make sense of the others– some very young, some much older than he expected — who are there for other types of care. This confusion does not stop George from firing into the clinic: killing many, leaving some wounded, and taking the rest of the people hostage. He is not there to try to understand the other side of the issue, he is there to play God.

As readers get to know the people inside and outside of the Center, Picoult begins to introduce some of the many, many paths that have led them there on this fatal, terrible afternoon. There is the doctor, who performs abortions in the hope that he will spare women the terrible fate that befell his own mother, who bled to death trying to end a pregnancy that could have led to her being lynched. Or the elderly cancer patient, who is seeking care from a old friend, a women who just happens to be a nurse at the Center. There is a young girl, trying to do the right thing and get on birth control before becoming sexually active and her caring Aunt who brought her. There is a woman there to have an abortion to preserve her dreams of finishing school and building a future; and even a pro-life activist who thought to expose the Center as illegal, who instead finds herself inside a totally unexpected nightmare.

The story is told in reverse, with the final moments of the stand-off opening the story and the author, slowly, slowly reversing time, revealing to readers what led George and the hostages to be in the Center that day.

Picoult is attempting to humanize the extremely complicated issues surrounding abortion; to move the dialogue from “right versus wrong” and try to show readers that reasons for abortion are are diverse as the women who seek them. She also attempts to show that women’s health centers — like the Center in the book — are often closed or so highly regulated that life-saving healthcare for poor or rural women is eliminated. Her characters diversity are an effort to show that there is no “one kind” of woman who seeks to end a pregnancy; nor is abortion the only reason that women seek out services at places that offer them.

Notably almost all the characters in the book — even those who are pro-choice — seem in their hearts slightly conflicted about whether terminating their pregnancies is the right thing to do. I feel that this oversight eliminates the point of view of the millions of women who aren’t the least bit conflicted about abortions: the women who have them without regret, for whom the only emotion they feel afterward is relief. If the picture is to be complete, then we must extend all women’s points of view into the dialogue in order to prevent readers from assuming that it is always — at least a little bit — the wrong decision.


In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende (2017)

in the midst of winter

Lucia Maraz, a Chilean woman and visiting scholar, and Richard Bowmaster, Lucia’s American colleague at NYU and her landlord, live together in a brownstone in Brooklyn. Despite the fact that both Lucia and Richard are experts on South American politics,  their relationship is strictly professional. Both Richard and Lucia are approaching their mid-sixties and both feel that they have reached a cross-roads in their lives. Lucia is recovering from a second bout of breast cancer and has moved to America wanting to live her life with verve and adventure. Richard is punishing himself for the horrific end to his marriage twenty years prior and has decided that, despite crippling loneliness, it is best to protect his heart and finish his life alone; a decision that has meant Lucia’s attempts to befriend Richard have all failed.

That is, until a blizzard strikes New York City trapping the two in the house they share and setting into motion a bizarre series of events that will ask the two to bridge the gap between them to help others. On an errand, Richard is involved in an car accident with a young woman and, even though the crash is not too serious, the woman is clearly terrified. In rapid Spanish, she attempts to tell Richard about her predicament but he is unable to follow her story: all he can make out is she is driving her employer’s car without permission. In desperation, Richard gives the young lady his home address and asks her to come see him after the storm with promises that he will help her explain the crash to her employer.

Evelyn Ortega knows as soon as she is hit by Richard Bowmaster that she cannot return to her employer’s home. With no other options given the horrendous conditions of the blizzard, she does the only thing she can think of: she goes to Richard’s home. Richard is shocked to find the young woman on his doorstep just an hour later, speaking Spanish and insisting on coming inside. Feeling as though he has no other options, he begs his housemate Lucia to help translate.

What transpires next will change the lives of all three people forever. Evelyn tells the two a story that began more than twenty years ago. From the time of her birth in a small Guatemalan village, Evelyn’s life was one of endless hard work. She tells the others of horrific acts of violence, wars, abuse, hunger, and about the terror that consumed her entire childhood; and in doing so paints of picture of Guatemala in the early twenty-first century.  Her story is one of survival; survival only made possible by Evelyn’s harrowing immigration to the US and her job working illegally for a man in New York who would not hesitate to punish her harshly for “borrowing” his car.

Snowbound in the house and unable to calm Evelyn  — who is terrified her boss will track her down and fire her, deport her, or possibly even kill her — Lucia tells the young woman and Richard about her own childhood in post-WW2 Chile and her own struggles with political upheaval, violence, and fear over the following decades.

Finally Richard shares his family’s story; beginning with his father’s escape from the Nazi’s; through his years married to a Brazilian woman and living in South America; to present day. His story also highlights the enormous changes — political and social — that have swept over South American in since the middle of the twentieth century.

As they tell their stories, the three begin to bond. Evelyn begins to trust that these people will help her escape her situation in New York. Lucia and Richard begin to grow closer to one another, their loneliness lessening with each word shared. By helping Evelyn, the other two begin to see a new purpose for their lives and a new path forward together.