In Russell Banks' new novel, a former activist looks back
A third of the way into Russell Banks' powerful new novel, The Darling, Hannah Musgrave travels to a remote tribal village in Liberia to meet the family of Woodrow Sundiata. This is in the mid-1970s, and Hannah, the daughter of a prominent, liberally active American doctor and writer, is hiding out in West Africa under an assumed name, fleeing authorities she believes are pursuing her for her radical activities in the Weather Underground. From almost the moment of Hannah's arrival in Liberia, alone and fearful, Woodrow, whom Banks describes in conversation as "a village boy who made good," has been kind, solicitous and helpful to her in very practical ways. As the two are driven out to the village in the government car that Woodrow's status as a midlevel bureaucrat affords, they each are considering the idea of marriage.
When they arrive at last at the village, Woodrow is swallowed up by the joyous reception for the favored son who has done so well in the nation's capital. Hannah is abandoned to her own devices. When she finally finds her way into the family's inner sanctum, she is offered with great ceremony the finest celebratory delicacy, "bush meat," which she suddenly realizes is roasted chimpanzee. Hannah refuses the meat and then flees the village, returning to the car in confusion and anger to wait overnight for Woodrow's visit with his family to end.
In a novel that ranges over 30 years of Hannah's life, from the 1970s to just after the September 11 terrorist attacks - including her doomed efforts to save endangered chimpanzees, her strained relationships with her parents, her seemingly cool relationship with Woodrow and their two sons, her experiences in the Weather Underground and her heartrending experiences of Liberia's horrifying slide from an apparently stable, American-style democracy into the viciously brutal regimes of Presidents Doe and Taylor - this moment at the village and its chilly aftermath is a small one. Yet such is the brilliance, nuance and power of its scenes that readers will feel in their bones the confluence of the perhaps contradictory emotional, psychological, social and political forces at work here. They might wish to turn to the author to ask, what does all this mean?
But this is exactly the sort of question Russell Banks feels unable to answer. "I suppose I can interpret these scenes as a particularly well informed reader," he says, reluctantly, during a call to his writing studio in the northeastern corner of the Adirondack Mountains near the Vermont border. "When I got to writing that specific scene, I wasn't sure what was going to happen. I knew she would end up being offered the most luxurious dish available, but I didn't know how she would deal with it. Then her character took over and she refused it. I was being driven by her character and the situation and the personal and social histories that led up to it."
Banks, who has written such highly regarded works of fiction as Continental Drift, The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone and, most recently, Cloudsplitter - his dazzling fictional portrait of abolitionist John Brown and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 - says he sees himself not so much as speaking through his characters as listening to them. "In Hannah's case, from the very beginning, I decided that I was her very close trusted male friend. I imagined myself sitting on the porch with her day in and day out or at a table over beers or coffee listening to her tell me her story."
Which is not to say that Banks' own opinions have nothing to do with his creation of Hannah Musgrave and the cast of characters who populate her story. "I have very strong opinions," Banks says. "And they naturally inform how I see the world and, then, how the world will end up being represented on the page. But I don't sit down and write a story in order to make a point. That would be a lousy story."
Percolating unobtrusively beneath the surface of the novel, adding richness to The Darling's powerful brew, is Banks' longstanding interest in issues of race. "The more I see and understand American history and American consciousness, whether it's white or black or Asian or Native American or Latino, the more strongly I believe race is the central story of America. If America has a single master narrative, it's the history of race. I can't think about American history without going there," he says.
But he quickly adds, "That's kind of an intellectual process. Obviously there's something more personal involved in it for me, and that's a harder thing for me to nail down and articulate."
Banks grew up in a white, working-class family in northern New England but "traveled to the South very early on and lived in its cities and went to college in the South in the civil rights era." At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill he was one of the founders of the local chapter of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). But he never followed the more radical path of his character Hannah Musgrave. Instead he became a one of the best fiction writers in America.
Musing on his own experiences in the antiwar and civil rights movements after completing the exhausting work on his longest novel Cloudsplitter, Banks began thinking about the fates of "women in the movement who had gone on to far more radical positions" than he had. Banks soon realized that "these women had been largely misrepresented . . . and that the psychology of a such a person and the idea of dedicating your life to certain ideals . . . hadn't really been chronicled in a serious way in fiction."
Thus the powerful, perplexing, riveting, memorable character of Hannah Musgrave was born. Back in the U.S., in the post-9/11 present, she looks back on her experiences in Africa with a mixture of anger and regret. In the end, the reader is likely to agree with Banks, who declares that Hannah is "a person who has lived through tragic events and has been deeply marked by them, a person who has suffered a great deal. But not as a victim. She's simply too powerful to think of as a victim."