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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1816

Throughout his literary career, Russell Banks has been writing fiction that explores the dynamic interactions between place, sex, race, and social class in the formation of individual identity and fate: imaginative inquiries always set against larger political patterns of modern history. With his tenth novel, The Darling, Banks pursues his characteristic concerns through his fictive narrator-protagonist Hannah Musgrave, the daughter of a famous pediatrician and antiwar activist clearly modeled on Dr. Benjamin Spock, who authored Baby and Child Care in 1946; this best-selling guide to enlightened childrearing had a profound influence on the raising of the baby-boom generation.

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An overrefined product of genteel parenting, affluence, and a first-rate education, Hannah evolves into an ardent idealist who ultimately channels her outrage over the Vietnam War—and corporate capitalist hegemony in general—by joining the Weather Underground, the ultra-radical faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), founded in 1969 to effect the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Banks uses Hannah's brief and mostly ineffectual career as a revolutionary to point up a glaring contradiction played out in the 1960's and 1970's: that often the most zealous New Left radicals hailed from middle, upper-middle, and upper-class backgrounds, that is, the social formations least oppressed by “the system.”

The ironic outcome of a structural contradiction of modern capitalism, the radicalization of people like Hannah was not experientially based but theoretical, a function of privileged entrée into cutting-edge sociopolitical critique at elite universities that most of the population was (and is) not in a position to access or understand. In other words, the poor and disenfranchised are more likely to be docile minions of the political economy that oppresses them, whereas that same system grants its favored few the precious leisure and knowledge that enables some of them to be its most trenchant critics and bitter opponents.

Banks also dramatizes another problematic aspect of radical chic in the ludicrous figure of Zack Procter, a comrade of Hannah in the Weather Underground who turns out to be an opportunistic liar, thief, coward, and finally a greedy capitalist. For Zack and many of his real-life (male) counterparts in the “revolutionary” movement, rocking the state was probably more Oedipal than ideological, more driven by testosterone, youthful recklessness, and resentment against overbearing parental authority than by a principled rejection of war or the corporatist status quo.

In terms of plot mechanics, Zack functions as a catalyst figure. Accidentally shooting himself with his own gun, Zack claims that he was in a shootout with political adversaries and persuades Hannah to flee to Ghana with him to avoid capture or worse. Once in Africa, Hannah and Zack eventually separate, and Hannah finds her way, alone, to the West African nation of Liberia, where she takes a low-level job in a Monrovia laboratory that is running blood tests using chimpanzees. Through her job Hannah meets Woodrow Sundiata, Liberia's minister of health. The two eventually marry and have three sons. Hannah's long sojourn in Liberia, from 1971 to 1990 (interrupted by a short-lived exile to the United States in 1983) forms the crux of the novel and affords Banks ample opportunity to explore a number of related matters.

Foremost among these issues is that of race. Living in an African nation and marrying a black African, Hannah is forced to confront her whiteness and her U.S. nationality as a conspicuous minority phenomenon, an experience most Americans never have to face or even contemplate. She also has to deal with moments of severe culture shock. This is best dramatized when Woodrow takes Hannah to Fuama, his home village, to meet his family—he has approximately forty-two siblings—and to celebrate their impending marriage. The main course proudly served at the wedding feast is “bush meat,”—roasted chimpanzee, a local delicacy that Hannah understandably finds revolting.

Allowed to flee the celebrations, Hannah returns to Woodrow's Mercedes parked outside the village and spends the night, drinking and having sex with her husband's chauffeur, Satterthwaite, a betrayal that defines the harsh cultural and emotional limits of her marriage. Hannah experiences her outsider status in a milder form in her daily life as a government minister's wife in Liberia's capital city, Monrovia. Local shopkeepers are gracious but slightly deferential, in keeping with Hannah's special status. Likewise, Woodrow's friends and colleagues politely keep Hannah at arm's length, not knowing quite what to do with a white American woman.

Later, when Liberia falls into bloody chaos with the ouster and murder of President Samuel Doe in 1990, Hannah's special status as a white American redounds in her favor. The U.S. embassy protects her from harm and facilitates her departure from Liberia after insurgents murder her husband and her three sons disappear. Though more than nominally imbedded in Liberian society, Hannah retains—and ultimately exercises—the option to leave when danger threatens, a choice not available to most Liberian natives.

Broadening his perspective beyond contemporary politics, Banks also explores the issue of the relationship between human beings and nonhuman animals. Though generally self-absorbed and only tangentially interested in other people, Hannah discovers a deep and abiding sympathy for the dozen or so chimpanzees kept in cages at her laboratory. In the presence of her “dreamers” (as she calls them), Hannah has an Emersonian experience of ontological authenticity, a sense of oneness with infinite Time, Nature, and Being that she has never felt in her dealings with fellow human beings. Pursing a vocation similar to that of world famous anthropologist Jane Goodall, Hannah dedicates herself to the study and welfare of the chimpanzees.

Convincing President Samuel Doe that a chimp conservation center will bring favorable publicity, goodwill, and tourist dollars to Liberia, Hannah secures funding to convert an unused prison into a primate sanctuary. Unfortunately, Hannah's fledgling career as a humanitarian and animal rights advocate is cut short by Doe's overthrow. To prevent the chimpanzees from being used as bush meat by rampaging Monrovians, Hannah ferries them to an uninhabited island in a river, but the gesture proves an empty one. When Hannah briefly returns to Liberia in 2001, she discovers that all of her animals are long dead, victims of starvation and poaching. In sum, Hannah's desperate flight from Liberia in 1990 constitutes not only an abandonment of her family and adopted country but also a betrayal of her beloved chimpanzees.

While it is very much a story about the tendency of privileged liberals like Hannah to embrace racial (and cross-species) otherness, only to employ their prerogative to cut and run when adversity strikes, The Darling is equally concerned with the long-term ramifications of American-style colonialism. The only African nation founded by former slaves from the United States, Liberia was, throughout most of its history, ruled by “Americos,” the repatriated African American elite that accrued most of the nation's power and wealth to itself and exploited the African natives for its own benefit and for the benefit of commercial clients stateside.

When Hannah arrives in Liberia in the 1970's, the country is still ruled by the Americo-Liberian True Tory Party's President William R. Tolbert, Jr. (1913-1980). In 1979 Tolbert mandates a price increase on rice, Liberia's staple food, a political blunder that sparks rioting, brutal repression, and the beginning of escalating strife that finally leads to his ouster and murder on April 12, 1980, by Samuel Doe, an illiterate master sergeant in the Liberian military. In order to keep his job at the Ministry of Health, Hannah's husband Woodrow must cast his lot with President Doe, even though it soon becomes clear that Doe—with the full support of U.S. president Ronald Reagan—is a more brutal and corrupt despot than Tolbert ever was. Increasingly paranoid, Doe hopes to head off another coup in 1983 by accusing Charles Taylor, Doe's deputy minister of commerce, of embezzlement of $1 million of state funds.

In the novel, Banks has Doe indict the fictive Woodrow Sundiata along with Taylor and also has Doe exile Hannah back to the United States, as a bad influence on her husband. The historical reality is that, to escape Doe's wrath, Charles Taylor fled alone to the United States. Arrested on a Liberian extradition warrant, Taylor was held at the Plymouth County House of Correction in Massachusetts but escaped in September, 1985, and returned to Africa to plot Doe's overthrow. No one knows who abetted Taylor's jailbreak, but Banks imagines Hannah doing so—an illegal intervention that will help to touch off an incredibly bloody civil war when Taylor launches his rebellion from Cöte d’Ivoire in 1989.

In the ensuing chaos, Taylor's chief rival, Prince Johnson, is about to capture Monrovia when Doe sends his boy soldiers after Woodrow, suspecting that he and Hannah have secretly backed Taylor. In full view of Hannah and her three teenage sons, Doe's young thugs, led by the treacherous Satterthwaite, behead Woodrow with a machete. In the aftermath, Hannah's sons disappear. She later learns that her boys have become rebel soldiers in Taylor's army to avenge the murder of their father.

The suave and sinister American attaché, Sam Clement (an ironic reference to Samuel Clemens, the real name of Mark Twain), shows Hannah a videotape of Doe's disfigurement and murder, and she recognizes one of Doe's torturers as her eldest son. With Liberia in anarchy, her husband dead, her sons lost to barbarism, her conservation work ruined, and her own life endangered, Hannah has no choice but to return to the United States. Now in her late fifties, Hannah nurses her elderly father and mother in their final illnesses, buys a farm in upstate New York, and settles into the final, rustic phase of her life, older but not necessarily wiser for all the trouble that she has caused with her arrogant meddling and for all the tragedy that she has suffered.

Though graced by passages of luminous writing, The Darling is not an artistic success. As more than one critic pointed out, the novel suffers from torpid plotting—until the final fifty pages—and Banks's uncharacteristic tendency to describe the action rather than dramatize it. The book is also marred by some blatant errors of fact. For example, Hannah sees the film Easy Rider in 1967, but it was not released until 1969; Samuel Doe's middle name is Kanyon, not “Kenyon.” Furthermore, as an imperiously smug “American darling” of privilege who thinks she can save the world, Hannah is not a likeable, or even intriguing, protagonist. Finally, Banks's intended indictment of American colonialism is rendered problematic by the fact that Liberians, left to their own devices, have engaged in a decade-long civil war that has taken a quarter-million lives. American colonial interests may have set the stage for such horrors, may have even abetted them, but Liberians must bear the onus for these crimes.

Review Sources

The Economist 373 (December 18, 2004): 133.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 14 (July 15, 2004): 643.

Library Journal 129, no. 14 (September 1, 2004): 136.

The Nation 279, no. 20 (December 13, 2004): 38.

The New Yorker 80, no. 34 (November 8, 2004): 135.

Newsweek 144, no. 15 (October 11, 2004): 56.

People 62, no. 16 (October 18, 2004): 49.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 31 (August 2, 2004): 49.

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