So the world at large, and America in particular is an especially misogynistic place. And this novel explores one particular facet of that misogyny, the disposable nature of women and girls. Based on the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which Ted Kennedy drunkenly drove off into the water, escaped with his life, while leaving the 29 year old campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne to die in the car, this novel explores the ways in which specific power of a Senator, and the more generalized power of men to protect and alleviate men from the guilt of their own actions.
The book itself is a fictionalized account and changes details in various ways to make it more of a “ripped from the headlines” kind of book and not historical fiction kind of thing, especially given that Joyce Carol Oates wrote this in 1990, ten years after Ted Kennedy’s presidential run and very much in the midst of his being an active US Senator.
The book itself is focused, insightful, and grueling.
I have a weird relationship with this event, much like a lot of the United States does. Like many people who grew up in a Democratic household and stayed Democrat (or Left or Liberal or Progressive) and like nearly everyone in the country, I am reactively defensive about Democratic politicians. This event (like plenty of others) was used as a political prop, namely on bumper stickers (oddly as anti-gun control stickers) and sneering retorts from Republicans and so my belief for the longest time as a kid was that if Republicans are using it to take down a Kennedy, they must be full of shit about it. This book didn’t change my mind about that — it was changed a long time ago as I grew up and grew out of that same kind of misogyny a lot of American boys stew in most of their lives. The book itself is a kind of totem that can’t be ignored by someone who does consider themselves on the right side of things, as a record of how power functions, and how those feelings about partisan politics can be deeply toxic. Obviously Republicans weren’t right in using this event as a prop, because they were lying through their teeth about their concern and shock, but a lot of Democrats had or have to ask themselves some really important questions about how they processed this part of their history.