In the past few decades, Russell Banks has established himself as one of America’s most important living writers, one of a handful with the daring and the talent to plumb our history and the human heart for their deepest meanings. For him, the defining story of our epoch is the great clash between Europe and Africa that gave birth to the African diaspora and with it, the New World, in all its tragic majesty and portent for good and evil. It’s a story he has explored from many different angles, beginning in 1980 with The Book of Jamaica, the tale of a white professor confronting the reality of race in the Caribbean. Since then, he has given us Continental Drift (1985), a visionary epic about the catastrophic collision between the lives of a working-class New Englander and a Haitian immigrant, both in search of their own American Dream; Rule of the Bone (1995), the story of a teenage drifter who flees America for Jamaica; and Cloudsplitter (1998), an examination of the fiery New England abolitionist John Brown and the tangled roots of political violence. In his latest book, The Darling, which he has said grew out of his research for Cloudsplitter, he takes up the same themes again, this time in the tale of an upper-class American woman who washes up in Liberia, the West African state settled in the nineteenth century by American ex-slaves, while trying to escape her radical past as a member of the Weather Underground in the 1960s.
When we first meet Hannah Musgrave, the book’s heroine and narrator, she’s a gray-haired, middle-aged organic farmer living in the Adirondacks. We soon learn that she has had another life as a wife and mother in Liberia, and that she’s decided to go back there to find out what happened to the three sons and the chimpanzees she abandoned ten years earlier to civil war. Hannah herself is the only child of a famous New England pediatrician (reminiscent in some respects of Dr. Benjamin Spock) who expected her to embody the self-denying ethos of his family’s Puritan forebears, not to mention the high-achieving results of his own liberal prescriptions for child-rearing. During the Vietnam era, he and her mother looked on with fond admiration even as she pursued an increasingly radical path that landed her on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. They saw her as a modern incarnation of the abolitionists, who they believe struck down the evil of slavery and, in so doing, saved the Republic. In fact, as Hannah herself recognizes, she is a monster of selfishness who uses a series of largely illusory crusades as a very American excuse for self-regard.
Bored and unhappy as a young woman trying to live up to her parents’ heroic expectations (while at the same time excoriating what she sees as their complacent liberalism), she seizes an opportunity to escape underground life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, by running away to Ghana with a fellow radical. Once there, she drifts on to the fetid and decaying Liberia of the 1970s, where she meets and marries Woodrow Sundiata, the country’s assistant minister of public health. She bears Woodrow three sons before discovering her true calling as a caretaker for the neglected and abandoned chimpanzees that Liberians consider “bush meat.” At the same time, she and Woodrow are drawn into an increasingly dangerous alliance with Charles Taylor, a cunning and ambitious politician whose plans to take over Liberia’s government are secretly backed by the CIA.
What Hannah really wants seems to be a quiet life alone with her animal friends, but, driven by the belief her parents have instilled in her that it is her duty and destiny to change the world, she can’t act on her desires until it is too late. Instead, she meddles in matters she doesn’t begin to understand, helping to plunge not just her family but the whole of Liberia into a hellish war. Only after her husband has been slaughtered in front of her eyes and her sons turned into cannibals and child soldiers is she willing to face the consequences of her actions and, even then, only obliquely and from the safety of her organic haven–a haven denied to the hapless Liberian victims of her psychodramas.
This, then, is yet another dark fable of American pseudo-innocence lost, and Banks is such a master storyteller, and has thought so deeply about the issues of race and power at hand, that there is much to savor here. As always, his portraits of rural and working-class New England life are unsurpassed, as are his depictions of the way the personal and the political push and pull against each other to shape human character. Take, for example, the description he gives early in the book of Hannah decapitating the free-range chickens she raises on her Adirondacks farm. She could delegate the task to an employee, but, being Hannah, she’s too proud for that. Wrenching as it is to kill, she says, “it feels somehow just and necessary that I do it myself.” Besides, she has a political rationale that makes it all right: “It’s me and Anthea and the girls against Tyson’s and Frank Perdue and the industrialization of the food chain, and for us it justifies the carnage and the stress and high feelings that the bimonthly killing arouses in us…. We’re doing it, by God, for a reason. It’s political.”