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A Desire Path - Jan Shapin

A Desire Path” is a rare gem of a novel. It offers an intriguing blend of political beliefs and personalities from the perspectives of 3 ordinary people whose lives paralleled the labor union movement of the New Deal Era, the “Red Scare” period of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and on to the Civil Rights Movement and the tumultuous 1960s.

The novel begins in Washington in 1934 with 3 people chatting excitedly over dinner in the Tollman house. There is Andy Craige, a labor organizer from Arkansas, who worked for the United Mine Workers; Anna Mae Sloan, a journalist and writer with strong leftist convictions, whose political consciousness began in the 1910s and were heightened during the decade she spent in the Soviet Union. While not a Communist, Anna Mae saw her role as extolling the virtues of the Soviet system, though she wasn’t blind to its shortcomings. And there is Ilse Tollman, who hails from an affluent background in New England and is married to a lawyer making a name for himself in the Roosevelt Administration while representing union interests in private practice. Andy had previously known Anna Mae (who liked to feel that she could charm the socks off of any man she fancied and get her way with others in furtherance of her career) and wasn’t exactly thrilled to see that she was there. The last thing he wanted to do was “talk to Anna Mae, from whom he had parted on not very good terms some dozen years before. But he did want to meet this Ilse Tollman, whose name rang a bell, and when he voiced that thought they all had a good laugh --- tollman, rang-a-bell.”

This meeting between Andy and Ilse would prove to be pivotal in shaping the course of both of their lives. For what began there as a budding, mutual attraction developed into a fiery, passionate love affair. What I liked most about this novel was the way it was fairly evenly told through the eyes of Andy, Anna Mae, and Ilse. As a reader, I got a tangible sense and deep appreciation of the 3 of them as individuals because of the challenges they faced over time for their political convictions and life choices. This is no polemical tale which makes some novels heavily layered with political ideology and belief a bit hard to ingest and enjoy. Here is a novel about real people who want to make something meaningful of their lives through involvement in larger political movements that defined the eras through which they lived, loved, and struggled to survive and thrive.

A Desire Path” is illustrative of the dynamics associated with the “human triangle” and what is perhaps its inherent stresses. This makes for a richly engaging novel.