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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.

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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 terms with the world than her mother, who has resided in it so much longer.

Meanwhile, Lucy has a parallel involvement with German-born academic Berndt Hoffmann. At first, these relationships seem dissimilar, as the intensely sexual character of Lucy’s relationship with Hoffmann differs radically from her parental and protective stance toward Theodore. In both cases, however, she is seeking external supplements in order to buttress her self-confidence. In pursuit of the satisfaction offered by these unusual relationships with someone else’s child and a married, exploitative man, Lucy ignores relationships with a greater possibility of being stable, such as those with her daughter and with Dan Gibbs, an African American man who is romantically interested in Lucy and concerned about her welfare.

Lucy finally perceives that Hoffmann is a sadistic, domineering adulterer whose pseudo-aristocratic, pretentiously intellectual charm cannot adequately conceal his endemic human flaws. It is against the background of the April, 1968, assassination of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., that Lucy fully perceives the error that she has made with Hoffmann. King’s assassination serves as a symbol of the sudden manifestation of all the psychic and societal tensions slowly percolating beneath the surface of the narrative. Most crucially, it serves to remind Lucy that, in the ongoing struggle for racial justice so rudely marred by King’s brutal murder, her abduction of Theodore is self-serving and hypocritical. She resolves to return Theodore to Aunt Alberta and, perhaps guided by Cindy and Dan, to seek a more stable life.

Most of the book is presented through third-person narration approaching events from Lucy’s point of view. This voice is plain and direct, allowing the reader a fully rounded look at Lucy’s predicament. Daringly, however, Kumin offers as well a glimpse inside Theodore’s consciousness. In a first-person interior monologue, Theodore offers comments on his own personal situation. Rife with misspellings to ensure their authenticity in the mind of the reader, these monologues show a young boy confused about his situation, overly credulous of adults who say that they have his best interests at heart, and awesomely gifted. By presenting Theodore’s voice in this way, Kumin allows the reader another window on the action of the book, constructing a dual perspective on the events of the plot and therefore giving the book a more open-ended texture. Later, it would become more politically controversial for a white writer such as Kumin to attempt to reproduce the rhythms of African American speech so exactly. In the era in which Kumin wrote the book, however, it was perceived as a noble attempt to bring underrepresented speech idioms into written language. In any event, the tensions involved in representing Theodore’s speech mirror the tensions between the agendas of white women and African Americans that constitute most of the book’s thematic structure.

Context

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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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

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.

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Critical Essays