Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428
Choices, Mary Lee Settle’s thirteenth novel, begins and ends in April, 1993, on a small island off the coast of Italy. The protagonist, Melinda Kregg, is eighty-two years old. Her two adopted children, Maria, who escaped with her from Spain in 1938, and Aiken, an African American who fled Louisiana in 1964, have come to be with her on the last day of her life. Melinda faces the end cheerfully, satisfied with her life and with the identity she has developed for herself, as a political liberal and a woman who has made a difference in the troubled times through which she has lived. The novel chronicles her adventures and her choices, often made at three o’clock in the morning, when she finds that the difference between right and wrong is particularly clear.
Starting out as a wealthy debutante in Richmond, Virginia, near the end of the 1920’s, Melinda soon finds her comfortable world upset. The stock market crash of 1929 ruins her father, who commits suicide, hoping his life insurance will let his wife and daughter keep their places in Richmond society. Melinda, however, resolves to find her own identity without relying on her inheritance.
Beginning as a volunteer with the Red Cross during the labor troubles of the early 1930’s in Kentucky, where she first becomes aware of class struggle, Melinda goes on to participate in many of the key events of the century. She is with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, nurtures the hurt and homeless in London during the Battle of Britain (Settle served in the Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Air Force at about the same time), and demonstrates for integration in the U.S. South in the 1960’s. She is first called a liberal in Kentucky by a hostile Communist organizer. As such, she works for individual freedom against powerful oppressors: capitalists, communists, fascists, Nazis, and segregationists, among others. She works hard to make herself useful to the cause; although she never fires a weapon or makes a speech, she acquires an identity for herself as a woman warrior, capable of repairing a truck and driving it through enemy lines, dressing wounds, maintaining inventories, or cheering her fellow resisters.
At the end, at home on her island, Melinda remembers her life convinced that, although values she and her friends fought for are still at risk, the world she is leaving is better than the one she came into. She identifies herself not by her place in Richmond society but by her struggles to make all society more equitable and less oppressive.