In The Underground Woman, Boyle’s last novel, the author characteristically draws upon her own experiences for her basic framework. Like her heroine, Athena Gregory, Boyle was jailed for participating in a demonstration against the war in Vietnam; likewise, her daughter rejected her family and joined a religious cult; similarly, Boyle was a professor at a San Francisco university.
The book opens with Athena and fifteen other protesters in a patrol wagon on their way to jail because they blocked the entrance of an induction center. Slightly more than half the book is taken up with Athena’s observations of the personalities and actions of three groups of women: her fellow demonstrators, the long-term prisoners, and those who work in the jail. Boyle describes in detail the routine of the monotonous days, the vile food, the various jobs the prisoners are given, and their ugly clothing. She learns about the oppression of black and Latina women and is confirmed in her conviction that older people must share the responsibility of all Americans to fight for liberty and justice for everyone.
The second part of the book finds Athena returning home after her ten-day stay in jail. Again she experiences a kind of imprisonment, as her home has been taken over by members of the cult of Pete the Redeemer. Her daughter, Melanie, is not among them, and Athena feels sure that their promise of her return is false. With the help of a black neighbor, the cult people are forced out of her house. Melanie has been in Athena’s mind throughout the book, but she never actually appears or takes any part in the action. As the book ends, Athena is once again in a patrol wagon, being taken off to jail for demonstrating against the draft. With her are some of the women with whom she had been imprisoned before. Athena has made her choice; in silence, she prays for connection with reality as she and the other demonstrators reenter the jail.
All of her life, Athena has tried to play two roles. In one, she has tried to live up to the ideal represented by the name her father gave her, that of the Greek goddess of war and reason. She speaks of this role as “that ancient unreality.” The other role is that of a woman who wants to participate in modern life: marrying young, having children, being involved in issues such as the war. She feels that she has always been two women, one visible and understandable and the other “functioning underground,” bravely enduring and working out her conflicts and troubles alone.
In this final novel, Boyle once again expressed her lifelong commitment to the struggle for justice and freedom, “pleading for the exercise of conscience.” Not long before her death, Boyle described herself as “a dangerous ’radical’ cleverly disguised as a perfect lady.” Clearly, Boyle saw herself as “an underground woman,” and it was that self-awareness and dedication to her ideals that enabled her to produce her last novel at the age of seventy-three.
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