A Flag for Sunrise Summary
by Robert Stone

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A Flag for Sunrise Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

An ambitious novel set in the fictional Central American country of Tecan, A Flag for Sunrise attacks United States interference in the economy, politics, and culture of Latin American countries. Its title derives from Emily Dickinson’s question, “Sunrise, hast thou a flag for me?”—an unspoken plea by Stone’s characters as they pursue something beyond themselves, a new vision to salute tomorrow. The novel continually draws parallels with the horrors and fiascoes of Vietnam through the memories of the central observer, Frank Holliwell, onetime Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, now a wandering professor. It asks what blood price Americans pay daily, the distant, violent human cost of tabletop salt or sugar. The novel brought Stone the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the John Dos Passos Prize for literature, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and nominations for the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

By exploring the fates of Americans whose lives become entangled in Tecanecan politics, Stone sums up the diverse motives that draw Americans into conflicts which he believes are none of their business and which they only vaguely understand. Characters include the bored and frustrated Roman Catholic nun, the beautiful and näive Sister Justin Feeney; the burned-out drifter, anthropologist Frank Holliwell, a would-be romantic, who only feels alive when involved in the mystery of conflicts in the threatening and oppressive tropics; and the aggressively paranoid Pablo Tabor, a demented killer who runs guns to Tecanecan revolutionaries. CIA agents, a Gnostic whiskey priest, a crazed Mennonite, journalists, an international jeweler, and resort developers suggest the multiplicity of reasons that have led to U.S. involvement in countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Stone also convincingly examines the internal weaknesses of such countries that make chaos and political expediency normal.

The basic plot lines move the separate lives of different characters inexorably toward one another and toward death. The nun, ordered to close her failed mission and to return to the United States, yet “hungry for absolutes,” volunteers to care for the revolutionary wounded and, after a very brief moment of glory, is senselessly battered to death by a crazed Tecanecan lieutenant, who feels justified in wiping out hippies and Communists but is disturbed by Sister Justin’s final words: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”

Pablo, after a rampage of killing, is convinced he has finally found his destiny in the ancient Indian place of sacrifice, a field of blood called “the place of the skull,” where hideous ancient bloodlust still takes its toll. The toll is exacted through a lunatic Mennonite who murders children, through armed warriors destroying one another in the name of fleeting political enthusiasms, and through CIA interference in local concerns.

Holliwell, together with Pablo on a small boat, feels “alone and lost, in utter darkness without friend or faction . . . a frightening place—the point he had been working toward since the day he had come south . . . his natural, self-appointed place.” With illusions stripped away, the animal within dominates, and what Holliwell had thought an aberration of nature proves normal. Like Faust, he looks to the sunrise, “where Christ’s blood steams in the firmament! One drop of blood will save me,” but the blood shed there reveals only “another victim of ignorance and fear,” with humankind “the joke on one another” and any universal design dark and destructive.

The outsiders, as Holliwell discovers, have “no business down there.” Only the revolutionaries seem to know what they are doing, and they are betrayed, tortured, and killed. Stone’s final image of this world is the cold, hostile environment of the sea: at times delicate and beautiful but always...

(The entire section is 1,773 words.)