Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Nicolas Shump: What Does It Mean to Have an 'American Heart'?

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Nicolas Shump: What Does It Mean to Have an 'American Heart'?

Article excerpt

Early in Laura Moriarty's new novel "American Heart," one of the protagonists (Sarah Mary) offers her opinion regarding religion and morality. She says, "A person can think for herself about what being good is, and then just try to do it because it's the right thing to do, whether there's a God watching or not." Moriarty's engaging novel tackles questions of morality and religion head on.

Moriarty, whose previous novels have often involved domestic relationships between mothers and daughters, moves outside of this arena to address questions of nationalism, patriotism, religion and difference in a novel aimed at young adult readers. Full disclosure: I attended the University of Kansas with Moriarty and have known her for more than 20 years.

Sixteen-year-old Sarah Mary and her younger brother Caleb find themselves living in the restrictive fundamentalist Christian world of their Aunt Jenny, having been left there by their troubled and restless mother. She returns briefly, only to steal money for her latest quixotic scheme.

As Sarah Mary and Caleb deal with the repercussions of this latest abandonment, they encounter a Muslim woman on the run from the "containment" policy put in place by the government to relocate Muslims to Nevada.

The parallels to Japanese internment or Hitler's Final Solution are deliberate. With President Trump's travel ban looming in the background, this novel is timely. Caleb, who has a good and empathetic heart, forces Sarah Mary to promise to help this woman reach freedom in Canada.

Moriarty has publicly acknowledged her debt to Huckleberry Finn, a debt made manifest by placing Sarah Mary in Hannibal, Mo., at the novel's opening. Like Huck, Sarah Mary undergoes a change in consciousness through her experience in bringing this Muslim woman to freedom. A self-described atheist, Sarah Mary's view of religion is restricted to the fundamentalist Christianity of Aunt Jenny and her Baptist school.

Rhetorically, Moriarty does not reveal the Muslim woman's real name until the midway point of the novel. …

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