But long before all that, the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst in 1974 and her year-long life on the lam that followed was one of the most shocking and fascinating events of that decade. Hearst has told her own version of events, but now, almost 30 years later, comes a novel entitled “American Woman“ by Susan Choi (“The Foreign Student“) that is the first true attempt to deliver a serious fictional treatment of the ordeal.
For the most part, it works well and does so on a number of levels, with the passage of time providing a perspective for the reader that helps anchor the narrative and its psychological probe of the main characters. Choi also made an interesting and wise choice in making another American woman, not the one modeled after Hearst, the primary focus of the story, which aids in drawing us into the shadowy world of those for whom terrorism, political activism, race relations and class wars are battles to be fought on the front lines of daily life.
If youre familiar with the Hearst saga, youll recognize who the fictional versions of the real-life players are/were, but theres something to be said for unfamiliarity, as well. The basis of Chois tale stays fairly tethered to the facts of Hearsts “lost year,“ but aims for depth in explaining motivation along with manifesto.
In “American Woman,“ several members of a small revolutionary band survive a deadly confrontation with the police. They are Juan and Pauline (Bill Harris and ex-wife Emily Montague are their actual counterparts), a married couple, and an heiress-cum radical named Pauline, the daughter of a wealthy publisher. The trio are the focus of a massive California manhunt, but with the help of a sympathizer named Rob Frazier, whose motive may be less noble than those of the average well-intentioned revolutionary, they make their way across the country to an off-the-beaten-path part of New York:
“Red Hook is little more than the junction of a couple of roads, with a farm store, a church and graveyard, a diner. And the post office, a small square cement building with RED HOOK NY 12571 spelled out in metal letters across the flat gray façade. He keeps flying through this sparse nexus of structures, first along the south-north road, then, when he finally manages to slow down and make the turn, along the east-west. He has the idea that the rest of the town must lie just farther on, and that the diner and farm store and church and post office are a far-flung outpost, but he keeps ending up twenty-odd miles away in front of a sign welcoming him to a new town, and so he keeps turning back and retracing his route...
At the post office he parks and goes in to take a look at her box. If there were a tiny window in the little metal door he would stoop and peer in, but there isn‘t. At the diner he orders coffee and a jelly donut and tries to figure out where all the people live. A man in overalls asks another man at the counter how to get somewhere. “I‘m from over-river,“ he explains. Back in his car Frazer studies the map. The Hudson lies west of here, about a ten-minute drive on these roads. Might be pretty. Frazer knows he is possessed of the skills to solve such problems as the one that lies before him. He can recognize, for example, that right now he is looking too hard at the wrong thing, and missing the point. He needs to do something else, maybe even give up for the day, find a bar and a motel, and start fresh in the morning. He should have realized that she wouldn‘t live here; she wouldn‘t want to be too near the post office. Yet she wouldn‘t want to travel too far. This is the sort of zero-sum compromise she makes all the time; Frazer knows this about her, having been subjected to the same flawed formulation. Trust Frazer or spurn him? A little of both? He notices, thinking of the man in overalls from over-river, that there aren‘t so many bridges: just four in the 150-mile stretch from the city to Albany. One lies due west of here, but Frazer‘s willing to bet that Jenny wouldn‘t cross the river for her mail. Too much traffic concentration, too confined; there‘s no good exit from a bridge. He puts an X on Red Hook, then estimates a half hour‘s driving distance and draws a circle around Red Hook with that radius. He does this mostly to amuse himself, but also because he believes in the inflexibility, predictability, knowability of people. They never stray far from their familiar realms of being. The most shocking act, closely examined, is just a louder version of some habitual gesture. No one is ever “out of character.“ That idea just makes Frazer laugh.“
The Jenny he is referring to is another fugitive, a young Japanese-American woman with the last name of Shimada, who is based on Wendy Yoshimura. The foursome retreat to a Red Hook farmhouse to hide out, undergo training to further their radical sensibilities, and generally get on each others nerves. All the familiar elements are there - the flight across country from justice, a bank robbery that gets national publicity, the “brainwashing“ of Pauline, and a “cause“ that is so half-baked that the quartet was ostracized by their mentors long before the kidnapping of a prominent young socialite gave them more attention than they ever deserved.
Chois creation of Jenny gives the book its rudder and she manages to make her so sympathetic that even when the seemingly ludicrous is revealed through her eyes, she brings a credibility to the psychology behind the action. There are supporting characters who contribute to the story, particularly Jennys friend and former lover Frazer and Will, another radical imprisoned for bombing government offices, and their appearances are well-timed, relieving some of the tension imposed by the claustrophobia of a life spent hiding.
This was a challenging tale to meld into a fictional novel, and one of its triumphs is that even though we know how the story ends, the mystery continues to unravel, right up through the final pages. It confirms that as much as we know or think we do, only those who lived through it are the actual owners of the truth, and even that, at times, has been as elusive as the radicals themselves once were.