Monday, February 7, 2011

The Passion of Molly T. by Lawrence Sanders

It is early 1987 and a meeting of the Canton, West Virginia branch of the National Women's Union (NWU) has just broken up. Several women, including the president of the chapter, Norma Jane Laughlin, and Molly Turner, executive secretary and Norma's lover, linger on the steps of the church where the meeting was held before heading out to their cars. A pick-up truck pulls up in front of the church, a window rolls down, and a whiskey bottle flies toward the women, shattering on the church steps. Moments later there is a gunshot and Norma Jane is dead. Molly vows revenge, and with the help of her brother-in-law, a Vietnam vet and local cop, she takes out both the men responsible for Norma Jane's death and their drug-peddling operation at the same time. 

A new branch of the movement is born. Molly is asked to form and head up a militant adjunct to the NWU, called the Women's Defense Corps. The WDC will be run as a military operation, and will be in charge of enacting frontier-style justice against rapists, wife beaters, and other abusers of women and offenders of the cause. The WDC is extraordinarily successful--and popular. But as the militant wing grows in prominence, politics rears its ugly head in the organization as a whole. And meanwhile, Lemuel K. Dundee, a senator who is not nationally known but who has aspirations, decides to run for the presidential nomination of his party in 1992. In order to get his name known across the country he chooses as his platform a highly vocal opposition to the WDC.

The Passion of Molly T. by Lawrence Sanders, which was published in 1984, is a book that is very much of its time. The NWU's campaigns for legal equity of women, as well as the virulent anti-pornography stance of the WDC, are both textbook issues of second wave feminism, and rather brilliantly captured. It is also, however, a book about feminism that was very obviously written by a man who believes in the cause but doesn't have a perfect grasp of how women behave. Many of Sanders' female characters exhibit an odd combination of mannish posturing and hyper-feminine communication--a lot of "darlings" and "dears"  and "loves" when speaking to one another, as one example. 

What raises this book above its now-dated presentation (though the issues, of course, rage on in one form or another), is its spot-on grasp of politics in all of its ominous deviousness. As Senator Dundee's pre-campaign campaign moves along, we are privy to underhanded dealing within his camp and without. The machinations within the women's movement are equally as devious, and the surprise ending, though I didn't see it coming, was absolutely inevitable but no less chilling for that.

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