Before I delve into the next chapter, I wanted to go into something I left out of my review of chapter one. One of the most frustrating things about Michael Farris’ writing is his propensity to write scenes where we, the readers, are supposed to empathize with his characters, but that end up making you dislike them.
The first time I attempted to read Anonymous Tip, while I was in college, I gave up when Saintly Mom Gwen was contemplating kidnapping her daughter out of foster care and fleeing to Canada. We were supposed to feel for her and her distress about losing custody of her child, but all I got from it was that she was unhinged and there was no way I could root for her. When I finally managed to read all the way through, I ended up hating Saintly Mom Gwen and her entire family and wishing CPS would just take the poor kid away permanently before her bio family traumatized her for life.
The paragraph I excerpted from the first chapter of Guilt By Association is another example of Farris making me dislike characters we’re supposed to like. Handsy Sidewalk Counselor Ginny and Creepy Colonel Danners are introduced to us as they’re invading a young woman’s personal space, with Ginny initiating physical contact without consent and Danners looming over the whole scene as an intimidating presence.
These are people we’re supposed to like, and by page two I already want to get as far away from them as I can. That’s compounded by the part I didn’t mention last chapter where Creepy Colonel Danners puts a fatherly hand on Handsy Sidewalk Counselor Ginny’s shoulder, because well, none of these people respect personal space. Not to mention that from my I-was-a-teenage-activist days, the older men who would get touchy feely with younger women always creeped me out—hence why I’ve decided to refer to Danners as “Creepy Colonel Danners” from here on out.
There are people from my I-was-a-teenage-activist phase who I still like and respect, but they aren’t the ones who I see reflected in the first few pages of Guilt By Association. Rather, I see the ones who I never particularly liked, who made me uncomfortable, and who I go out of my way to avoid. That’s not a particularly auspicious start to this novel.
With that, onward and upward to chapter two and beyond!
Two – In which we find out how our merry band of protesters came together
Wait, what? Farris tells us that Creepy Colonel Danners was, “A strong pro-life advocate with many leadership qualities,” who “soon found himself the chairman of the “Whatcom Life Coalition.”” Last chapter he told us that the Creepy Colonel had never been involved in activism before, now he’s a “strong pro-life advocate.” When you’re already contradicting what you said on page three by page seven, you’re not off to a good start. Anyway, the Creepy Colonel started holding WLC meetings at his “spacious” home.
Here’s where we get the rest of the cast of characters. Creepy Colonel Danners starts a leadership council for his group, consisting of the following:
- Pastor Randy Wallace of Immanuel Bible Church (presumably an independent fundamentalist sort of church, going by the name). We’re told it’s a “natural choice” because his church is one of the largest in Bellingham.
- Shirley Alper, a grandmother in her mid-sixties with two decades of pro-life activism under her belt (Why didn’t she get put in charge? She’s the only one who has any prior experience. Oh wait, she’s a womans, gotta have the mens in charge).
- Ginny Kettner, the previously mentioned Handsy Sidewalk Counselor Ginny, thirty year old pastor’s wife and former television reporter.
- Suzie O’Dell, nineteen year old college sophomore from Spokane who leads “a group of forty brave believers” who sing and pray in “Red Square” on her “secular, left-leaning” Western Washington University campus.
Is Suzie on the leadership council because of her proven campus leadership skills? Nope. Women can’t be leaders (except apparently on heathen college campuses), remember? That’s the men’s job. Nope, she’s on there because the Creepy Colonel thinks that they need a college student who can relate to the soon-to-open clinic’s target market, college girls. The rest of the group didn’t really want her on the team, Creepy Colonel had to convince them.
Here’s where I RAEG.
After describing how Suzie organized the Christian students on campus to lit drop dorms with pro-life material, “cutting down the profitability of the clinic,” and demonstrating that she’s the only one of this cast of characters who is actually any good at organizing and doing squat, Farris tells us, “Suzie was well liked by the adult leaders.” Well liked by the adult leaders.
Because in Farris’ universe, Suzie, a legal adult with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities that go along with being a legal adult, Suzie, the one who has successfully organized dozens of students on a campus we’re supposed to believe is hostile, is still a child.
Here’s a Venn Diagram, lazily drawn for you in MSPaint:
It’s quite telling that Michael Farris doesn’t see Suzie O’Dell as an adult. One of the things that homeschool alumni repeatedly run into in advocating for homeschooled kids is that no matter how old we are, no matter how accomplished we are, homeschool movement leadership refuses to see us as anything other than children. Here we have Michael Farris writing a character who is over eighteen, who clearly has leadership skills, a character who we as readers are supposed to like, and he can’t see his own character as anything other than a child.
The people who should be leading this pro-life activist coalition are Shirley Alper, who has been in this fight since the early days post-Roe v. Wade, and Suzie O’Dell, who is clearly doing way more than anybody else and has demonstrated leadership skills. But nope, we can’t have the womenfolk in charge, no siree, clearly Creepy Colonel Danners with the spacious house has to be running the show because he’s a man and That’s Just The Way Things Are.
Anyway, the rest of the chapter just tells us that by the time the Whatcom Women’s Center for Choice opened, Creepy Colonel Danners organized enough people to cover things down at the clinic every Saturday. He “frequently cruised the sidewalks during the weekdays,” WHICH DOES NOT SOUND CREEPY AT ALL.
Farris is sure to reassure us that Creepy Colonel Danners and his Merry Band of Protesters stayed strictly within the city protest laws. What with all of the personal space invading it sure sounds to me like they’re walking right up to the edge of the letter of the law but hey, what do I know? It’s not my novel.
At this point, my review is longer than the chapter, so this sounds like a good place to stop. Next time we get to meet the cast of characters at the clinic. I’m sure they won’t be strawmen at all.