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Tom Chaney: A Mirror Up to Life

Of Writers and their Books, A Mirror Up to Life is a review of Protect and Defend, a novel by Richard North Patterson. This review first appeared 11 December 2005
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Tom Chaney: Images of Mammoth Cave

By Tom Chaney

A Mirror Up to Life

When I was teaching college freshman how to write - a process not fraught with a great deal of success - one of my favorite essays to use for a model was by Tennessee Williams entitled "The Timeless World of a Play." I've not read it for years, but I still remember one example he gives to illustrate how theatre gives us a chance to step out of the pressure of life to contemplate what we cannot remove ourselves from in the reality of time.

One hears, he said, of the death of a friend. Life and work must go on. Flowers are ordered; the children must be got off to school; funeral schedules noted; work presses in; the family cook must still make a meal. The reality of grief and loss must compete with the reality of the continuing obligations of daily life.

The world of the play -- or the novel or the poem for that matter -- enables us to step aside for a few hours to contemplate a specific situation that is not our life, but which enables us to come back to our hectic lives with a renewed vision of those lives including the friend's death.

Richard North Patterson's novel Protect and Defend written in 2000 does just that for the continuing hot-button issue of teenage abortion where the health, but not the life, of the underage mother may be at risk. Just last week the United States Supreme Court was presented with such a dilemma in the case of Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

In the Patterson novel the 16-year-old girl is faced with a similar situation. She has become pregnant; the child has little to no chance to survive after a birth which may leave the mother unable to have more children. Her doctor, her priest, and, most importantly, her parents are adamantly opposed to abortion on deeply held religious beliefs. Indeed, the internal conflict within the teenager is framed within the context of the possibility of a future family as opposed to the near certainty of a child whose birth might destroy that chance and who will surely not live much beyond birth.

The case brought from New Hampshire, without a specific plaintiff, raises the same issues as the case in Protect and Defend. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, according to The Washington Post, of December 1 posed the hypothetical situation in this way.

"It's the middle of the night in New Hampshire, and a teenager, afraid to tell her parents she is pregnant, appears at an emergency room. A doctor diagnoses a spike in blood pressure that won't kill the girl but could render her sterile unless she has an immediate abortion. The doctor calls a judge for permission to perform the procedure, as state law prescribes -- and voice mail answers."

"What's supposed to happen?" asked Judge Breyer. One answer is provided in this most suspenseful novel by Patterson. Further into the plot I will not venture. If I revealed the conclusion I might miss the sale of a book.

The fictional situation further parallels the current Supreme Court case in another way.

Patterson's President has just been elected in a closely fought contest. He is sworn in by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who bitterly resents his election and disagrees with the President on every issue. After the President's acceptance speech, the Chief Justice suffers a stroke and dies on the inaugural platform. Thus the necessity of making a nomination to a sharply divided court is thrust upon him as the first order of business of his new administration.

At the same time, the fictional abortion case begins its speedy way upward through the courts.

The novel thrives on the various ambiguities of the situation. The pregnant teenager loves her parents most dearly, yet sees, on religious grounds, the necessity for her chosen course. The parents are in similar conflict between religion and familial affection.

The President's nominee chose to bear a child long in the past and to give her up for adoption to a sister, so that the daughter is raised as a niece.

The motives of the Christian Coalition which sides with the parents are seen as sincere at the grass roots but corrupt at the level of leadership.

The Senator who heads the Senate Judicial Committee, and who is a friend of the President although of the opposition party, has a family situation which leaves him torn on emotional and political issues.

It is ironic that the current case before the Supreme Court is being decided at a time when a new Chief Justice is in place and when the issue of abortion is firmly involved in the confirmation of another judicial nominee.

Protect and Defend is a closely drawn projection of a current dilemma -- not easily resolved. Indeed it provides the opportunity of which Tennessee Williams spoke, the chance to step aside from life for a moment; to clarify our thinking about crucial issues.

Also, it is a mighty exciting read.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-12-09 03:19:43
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