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Goodreads Review

May 17, 2017

A new 5 star review on Goodreads:

Goodreads: Frederick Frankel rated it ***** (it was amazing)

This is an historical novel, a novel of ideas, and a journey into and out of darkness.

I received a review copy because the author, Franklin Debrot, liked my review of Witness, by Whitaker Chambers. There are parallels between Chambers’ autobiographical work, written in the early 1950s, and this novel. Both bring to life the world of the communist movement as it existed in the 20th century, and both place that world within a larger context. The collapse of communism, which in its heyday almost annihilated western civilization, should not lessen our interest in this subject. It’s apparent demise can be no lasting comfort, for its after effects remain with us, a symptom of something gone wrong in the heart of the West that has never been healed.

The novel weaves backwards and forwards in time, but its “present tense” is the end of the 1960s, in an historically black college in North Carolina. Two young men, Vincent and Jim, are recruited to help an aging professor, a certain Thomas Doswell, teach a great books course. Vincent is an idealist; he wants to fulfill the dreams inspired by his childhood hero, the celebrated Paul Robeson. Jim is emerging from a broken childhood, and trying to fit in as a middle class white man in an unsympathetic environment of militant blacks and wealthy white liberals. And Doswell is an outcast. The younger men are warned against getting too close to him. He is the object of hatred and not a little fear on the part of the college administration — an old man, an “Uncle Tom” whose ideas are out of touch with The Movement. But as both Vincent and Jim get to know Doswell, another picture of the man begins to take shape.

Over the course of the novel, Doswell recounts the main events of his life. A black man born in the era of Jim Crow, he qualified for entrance to Harvard, the white man’s most elite university. As a student, he rejected the religion of his father, a strict Protestant minister. He was instead intoxicated by the ideas of the Russian Revolution and its promise of a new world. That promise drew him into the service of the Communist Party, both in the USA and abroad.

Doswell recounts his role in the famous textile strikes of the 1920s in Patterson and Passaic. By the time those events are over, he is something of a legend. In the process, he has learned a great deal about mass movements and the art of leadership. He also learns the right way to play the American media, and through them, the American ruling classes. Then as now, it is surprisingly easy to get them to sign on to almost anything – just tap into what’s fashionable.

The Party recognizes his talents. They recruit him for more difficult and delicate work. He is trained in the theory and practice of spy craft. He is assigned to work closely with that curious Soviet agent and American capitalist, Armand Hammer. This part of the story is one of a long disillusionment, of terrible crime, and an unexpected awakening. In the 1940s Doswell breaks with the Party. He goes underground, but he knows the Party never forgets and never forgives.

By the time the main story resumes, Doswell still has his enemies. In fact, he is a more isolated figure than ever, carrying a weight of guilt and knowledge he cannot easily share.

That guilt and knowledge point to something striking about this novel, as well as Chamber’s writings. Simply put, many readers will experience a sense of vertigo while reading either of them. They will encounter a portrayal of recent American history that contradicts much that they think they know. There is a real possibility that, no matter how soberly the facts are stated, the truth conveyed by this heavily documented historical novel will be ignored or misunderstood. There are good reasons for my saying this. But perhaps that will not be the case. After all, there is such a thing as the long view.


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