Oates’s writing has always surveyed the social landscape of American culture, but recently her novels have become more sharply defined by the most significant political debates in the country. These include her novel The Falls which fictionalizes the infamous Love Canal environmental tragedy, My Sister, My Love which fictionalizes the media sensation of JonBenet Ramsey’s story, Carthage which explores the overcrowded penitentiary system and The Sacrifice which fictionalizes the case of Tawana Brawley who was allegedly the victim of racist police brutality. These dramatic stories consider how class, politics, religion, law and the media shape the pressing ideological conflicts within American society. A Book of American Martyrs directly addresses the highly controversial subject of abortion. It begins with the execution of abortion doctor Gus Voorhees and his volunteer driver by zealous pro-life protestor Luther Dunphy who is affiliated with the Army of God, a Christian terrorist organization. The novel recounts this incident from a variety of perspectives, the lives of the victims and the shooter as well as the way it affects their families in the decades that follow. In doing so, Oates artfully presents a nuanced account of the tragic consequences of bad logic and extreme opinions.
The title is a play on the 16th century text Book of Martyrs by John Foxe which was an influential polemic recounting the sufferings of Protestants under the Catholic Church in England and Scotland. Oates similarly shows subjective points of view on the sacrifices and perceived injustices suffered by the protagonists by presenting italicized first-person accounts from a variety of peripheral characters. These testimonies build to a chorus of opinions surrounding the case and transform mere individuals who died because of their beliefs into icons of a particular cause. Despite repeated threats made against of his life, Gus Voorhees bravely persevered working in women's clinics in areas of the country that actively protested against abortion. Luther Dunphy realised he was giving up his life by executing the abortion doctor he considered a murderer so that “in some quarters, among avid Christians, Dunphy was revered as a kind of hero, a ‘soldier of Jesus’ and a ‘martyr.’” In this way, subsequent to their fates, both men transformed from mortals to symbols within the public consciousness.
In the first half of the novel Oates shows how both these men are more complicated than the ideas that they come to embody. Luther and his wife Edna Mae’s youngest daughter Daphne is born with a debilitating mental handicap. She dies in a car crash which may or may not have been an accident; the question which Luther can’t even seem to ask himself is whether it would have been better to abort this daughter before her birth if they were aware of her severe handicap. Rather than pursue the intricacies of his problems he becomes more pious and secretly satisfies his sexual cravings in clandestine meetings with women in motels. Here is the grating hypocrisy of the zealous: Luther condemns women who get abortions while not taking responsibility for having sex with anonymous women. It reveals an innate sexism within arguments about abortion. Alternatively, Gus seeks to assist women from Christian backgrounds that are fervently opposed to abortion. But, in one case, he finds himself publicly accused of coercing a woman to abort her baby after she begged him for assistance. The question of choice is considered from many different angles through the various strands of both men’s lives.
The novel also shows other forms of martyrdom in figures such as Voorhees' driver Timothy who is also shot down. Later in the novel his daughter angrily declares “It was VOORHEES that was the martyr. On the anti-abortion websites it was stated that Timothy Barron’s death was COLLATERAL DAMAGE and in a war COLLATERAL DAMAGE is to be regretted but not to be avoided.” Although Timothy was merely a bystander in this conflict and his loss interjects another level of moral complexity, ironically his death fades more quickly in the minds of the public. In a sense, the widows of both Gus and Luther sacrifice themselves to the memories of their husbands. Edna Mae becomes addicted to pain killers and strengthens her resolve as a pro-life Christian participating in a macabre spectacle where aborted fetuses are recovered from abortion clinics and buried. Conversely, Gus's widow Jenna withdraws entirely from her children to devote herself to legal work even at the expense of her wellbeing: “the more ravaged Jenna appeared, the more of a martyr.” In both cases the family unit is obliterated as a result of grief and the continuing ideological battle.