Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Abduction, poet Maxine Kumin’s most significant excursion into the novel, is a taut and compelling work which skillfully traverses public and private themes. It insightfully explores the social tensions between Jews, Europeans, and African Americans in the 1960’s, as well as the more perennial antagonisms between men and women. The novel revolves around the emotional experience of its chief character, Lucy Starr.

When Lucy, an assured, well-connected woman of early middle age, abducts the poor African American boy Theodore, it seems a very unlikely action. In the course of the novel, Kumin sketches in for the reader the circumstances in Lucy’s psyche and biography that would precipitate such a rash action. Lucy has been married briefly and has been quite successful in her vocation, but she has never really found a permanent anchor. At first involved with Theodore simply in the role of educational consultant, she begins to become fascinated with him because he actually needs her help. With Theodore, unlike in her other relationships, she can feel strong; she is the great benefactor, the giver of form and purpose. In return, Theodore supplies a focal point in her life, a motivating center.

Lucy plays an ambiguous game with the other tutelary forces in Theodore’s life—his Aunt Alberta and his teacher, Mrs. Poston—and indeed with Theodore himself as well. She strives to demonstrate that she knows what is best for him, that her training and background will save him from the cycle of poverty that threatens to encompass his family. Yet a possessiveness lurks within Lucy’s altruism. The reader senses that Lucy seeks Theodore as compensation for some emotional void in her own inner life. Although an adult and a “leader,” Lucy at heart is still somewhat of a child. For example, Lucy believes that her daughter, Cindy, swims far more easily in the sea of reality than she does herself. Cindy is on closer...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Abduction was, quite intentionally, a novel of its moment. Many literate readers were baffled by the upheavals of the 1960’s and sought fiction that would help mediate these social changes through the clarifying prism of literature. Kumin was addressing this audience. It might be expected that the novel would soon become considerably dated, but it has not. Part of the reason for this timelessness is that many of the issues addressed by Kumin have remained relevant.

One of the most interesting of these issues is the tension between white, privileged feminists and African Americans. Both groups have historically experienced oppression by the white males who have dominated the United States from the beginning. They made common cause in the 1960’s and bathed in the glow of self-affirmation and social enfranchisement in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Yet many African Americans have not agreed that white women are victims of prejudice to the extent that their own group has been. They argue that while women were perhaps culturally marginalized, they hardly endured the economic and psychological subjugation undergone by African Americans. In the 1980’s, this debate was carefully considered by such scholars and critics as Elaine Showalter, Bell Hooks, Barbara Christian, Barbara Johnson, and Patricia Redmond. Many of these individuals are African American women who understand both sides of the situation.

Kumin’s depiction of Lucy’s appropriative relationship with Theodore can be seen as an early forerunner of this critical dialogue. Lucy mouthed many of the slogans of collective emancipation. In reality, however, she was locked up in her own intellectual cocoon and saw African Americans only as vehicles to serve her emotional needs. It is only at the end of the book that a more nuanced and compassionate perspective is achieved. Tacitly, Kumin’s book argues that, in order for women and minorities to be truly united in the pursuit of justice, they must first confront the manifest divisions between them. The Abduction is a searching examination of these divisions.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Adams, Phoebe-Lou. “One Woman’s Yearnings.” The Atlantic Monthly 227 (October, 1971): 135. This article explores the psychological tensions in Kumin’s novel, paying particular attention to the handling of character.

Gordon, David. “Some Recent Novels: Styles of Martyrdom.” The Yale Review 58 (Fall, 1968): 112-126. Gordon’s discussion of Kumin’s earlier work spotlights the acute fashion in which she is able to handle abstract issues of pain and suffering within tangible human situations.

Kumin, Maxine. To Make a Prairie. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979. This collection of essays, addresses, and journal entries offers the most intimate portrait available of Kumin. Its focus, however, is largely on the poetry.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. This book gives a good account of Kumin’s position in the emergence of a deliberately feminist mode of writing.