The Pulitzer-nominated author of Cloudsplitter (1998), among others, looks unsparingly at the bitter life of a 1960s revolutionary.
Banks’s portrait of John Brown showed readers an uncompromised understanding of salvation-mindedness that he applies with surgical skill here, in the story of Hannah Musgrave, only child of a Benjamin Spock–like leftist pediatrician and his supportive but self-effacing wife. Educated at Rosemary Hall and Brandeis, Hannah, a gifted mathematician and mechanic, chucked med school at the last minute to join the Weather Underground, determined to overturn the government. In the thick of the dramatic unfoldings of the late ’60s, Hannah skipped bail in Chicago to go deeper underground, lived with a succession of revolutionary cells and lovers of both sexes, and ultimately fled to Africa with a trust-funded fellow Weatherman from Cincinnati. Striking out on her own, Hannah crosses from Ghana into Liberia, the strange semi-colony established by American abolitionists before the Civil War, where she finds that the revolutionary past she’s tried to hide is an open secret—and that her whiteness is both protective and problematic in the odd society founded by freed slaves. Her medical training leads to a job collecting data from chimpanzees that have been taken from the wild for infection with hepatitis for research, and Hannah’s attachment to the sad primates is the first true affection she’s felt for anyone in her life—stronger even than the bond for the three boys she will bear after a cynical marriage to American-educated Woodrow Sundiata, a minor Liberian government official from a favored tribe. Neither her tribal connection nor her education is enough to save the family from the disasters that follow the fall of the corrupt president—but Hannah’s connections are enough to bring her yet another and undeservedly good life back in the States.
Banks never makes it easy, but this is worth reading as a warning to anyone not chary of the children of privilege.