This Friday sees the release of Captivity (John F. Blair, 2008) by Pennsylvania-based author, Debbie Lee Wesselmann. John F. Blair, Publisher (located in Winston-Salem, N.C.) is a small press specializing in regional fiction, and Wesselmann’s new novel, set in South Carolina, fits the bill.
At first glance, Captivity comes off like a work of non-fiction. “Dana Armstrong is no ordinary primatologist,” explains the dust jacket. “In the 1970s, she was the little blond girl with a chimpanzee for a sister, a participant in her father’s psychology experiment that sought to narrow the divide between the species.” As most of us are familiar with the work of Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey, and media-friendly apes like Koko, this story of a scientist struggling to keep a University-funded chimpanzee sanctuary afloat seems more than plausible.
But Wesselmann’s novel (yes, it’s fiction) is more than a science-heavy study. In fact, it reads like a guilty pleasure, layering main character Dana’s cache of ghosts (she believes she was responsible, as a child, for harm done to her chimpanzee “sister,” Annie; that guilt largely the reason why she’s dedicated her life to rescuing abused and HIV-infected chimps) as well as her personal struggles (someone frees the captive chimps to disastrous effect; Dana’s drug-addicted brother phases in and out her life, also with painful repercussions). The language is straightforward and compelling, the emotions raw while the plot proves a page turner. “Dana could not bear to look at Mary for fear Mary would see straight into her heart,” Wesselmann writes. ” She could feel Mary’s indecision — whether to go or stay. Stay, Dana mentally told her. Don’t let me be this mean to you. But after a moment, Mary moved down the hall with the rapid clunk of work boots on linoleum. Dana let her head fall back against the bright blue cinderblock wall. When she closed her eyes, she could see Annie.”
The character of Dana Armstrong is evident of a recent trend in heroines. These characters, wounded to the point of social ineptitude, yet strong physically and intellectually in the face of their emotional bruises, have begun to capture the imaginations of readers. Where it used to only men who could be both ruined and fierce (Batman, Wolverine, Jason Bourne), now women with a past are cropping up, such as the lead characters in crime author James Patterson‘s Women’s Murder Club series, or forensic anthropologist-turned-sleuth Temperance Brennan, realized by author Kathy Reichs.
In that vein, Dana is a bit of a misfit. “Her ex-husband, Charlie, had liked to tell people, and perhaps still did, that Dana related better to chimps than to people,” Wesselmann reveals. So much so, in fact, that her favorite chimp in the sanctuary is the dangerously violent Benji, a rescued animal who never recovers from his traumatic past. And, as troubled heroines tend to, Dana has an enemy in her father’s former colleague, one Dick Lamier: “Even now, that name and the images it evoked made her insides cold and dead.”
At times, Captivity tugs at heart strings. It also surprises, as Dana faces down her past and her family struggles, these issues begging the question, who is really held captive? And there are no cut-and-dried answers, which is a large part of the book’s charm. But, more than an entertaining read, Captivity nudges toward the educational and, true to it’s initial Goodall/Fossey/Koko directive, follows up with a list of organizations committed to helping chimpanzees.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann reads signs copies of Captivity at City Lights Bookstore (3 East Jackson St., Sylva, 586-9499) on Wednesday, Mar. 5, 12 p.m. She will read and sign books at Malaprop’s the same day at 7 p.m.