In 2004, the following books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction: Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins; The Known World by Edward P. Jones; and American Woman by Susan Choi. Pop quiz: Which book won? Answer: The Known World by Edward P. Jones. But have you ever heard of it? 2004 must have been a strange year in fiction. I have read the winners from 1999 through 2003, and then again for five of the years after 2004, but I don't recall anyone I know even talking about any of the 2004 finalists. I had never heard of any of them myself, until I read My Education by Susan Choi last year, and was impressed to read that she had been nominated for the prize for her earlier novel.
American Woman is a fictionalized version of Patty Hearst's time in hiding with the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. In case you were born after 1974, Hearst was kidnapped by the SLA. The group made certain strange demands from Hearst's very wealthy family, but was never satisfied with their responses. After some time, the group robbed a bank, and Patty appeared to be an active participant in he heist, rather than a hostage. A shootout with the SLA followed, with only two members and Hearst surviving. This is where the story in American Woman begins.
While the name "Patty Hearst" was familiar to me, I was young enough when the true story unfolded that I didn't remember all of the details. Choi stayed very close to the truth in her telling, but changed the names and invented dialogue. Patty, who wanted to be called "Tania" in real life is called "Pauline" in the book. A fact that I never knew was one of the people in hiding with Patty was a Japanese American woman named Wendy Yoshimura. In the book, Wendy is named Jenny Shimada, and the story is told from her perspective. If you don't already know about Wendy, and if you even might read American Woman, don't click on the link above until after reading the book, so the ending won't be spoiled for you.
Wendy/Jenny was completely overlooked by the press at the time. She was born during World War II, while her Japanese parents were living in an internment camp within the US. Growing up, Jenny's father faced hard times, not feeling like he had a place in either the US or Japan. As a teenager, Jenny lived in California, and found friends who were discontent with the government and wanted to make a statement. Jenny joined their protests, and soon found herself in over her head. As Jenny's time with Pauline came to a close, Asian Americans came to her aid in a way that Jenny neither expected nor felt that she deserved. Those Asian Americans, and not just Japanese Americans, did everything within their power to help Wendy in real life. Choi, who Wikipedia says is half Korean, is another Asian American keeping us from forgetting Wendy Yoshimura's name.
The story in American Woman is a little slow. This only makes sense, as Jenny and Pauline are supposed to be in hiding and keeping a low profile. Choi explores the question that the American public struggled with during the Patty Hearst trial: Was Patty/Pauline a hostage or a willing participant? If she was a willing participant, why was that, and does she deserve to be punished for her role? Choi doesn't pick sides in Patty's story, but she is clearly a strong supporter of Wendy.
American Woman was a NYT Notable in 2003. It is also another book toward the I Love Library Books Challenge. In case I got you thinking about the Pulitzer Prize, this year's winner in fiction was announced earlier this month. It is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I can't wait to read.
Next Up: The Titans by John Jakes
Still Listening To: The Cuckoo's Calling by "Robert Galbraith"