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, Missouri 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. To the outside world, she is Sarah Mary’s Portuguese Aunt Chloe, who speaks no English. What we know from the narrative is that she is on the run and is a wanted fugitive whose likeness appears on television and video billboards along the route from Hannibal to Canada.
This journey is perilous, as simply helping “Chloe” would be considered an act of treason. By chance one evening, Sarah Mary attends a raid on a home where Muslims are being housed. As Sarah Mary watches the actions of the mob that arrives to watch, she experiences a flood of emotions as she is confronted with the reality of fear and bigotry. Spending time with Sadaf, watching her pray and seeing the importance faith plays in Sadaf’s life makes it difficult to view her as a criminal. Now we learn of Sadaf’s husband and son. Through Sarah Mary’s eyes, Sadaf is transformed from a fugitive to a wife and mother who misses her family deeply.
Sarah Mary states, “Even with her being born someplace else, she was as American as I was, maybe even more, because she’d had to work so hard to get here, and she had Thomas Jefferson quotes memorized in her head. I knew part of her was Iranian, and would always be. But she had an American heart.” This American heart is at the center of this engrossing story of transformation and friendship. Though Sarah Mary might not believe in God, she knows in her heart that helping Sadaf reach freedom is the right thing to do. It is a story I enthusiastically recommend and plan to have my 11-year old daughter read.
American Heart, despite its dystopian setting, is a deeply hopeful novel, affirming the promise of America expressed in the words of Civil War General and Senator Carl Schurz: “Our country — when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.”
Nicolas Shump is a columnist for The Topeka Capital-Journal.