Review

She Was

by Janis Hallowell

Doreen Woods is a law-abiding citizen, community member, wife,
mother, and a successful dentist with her own practice and an
offshoot that provides dental care for people with minimal
financial resources. Her son is grown, about to start college in
the fall, and her marriage is at a good and solid place. Although
her brother is suffering from AIDS-related MS, there is only one
big thing keeping her from being completely content with her place
on the earth.

Years ago, at the height of the Vietnam War, Doreen was an
18-year-old terrorist named Lucy Johansson, and is wanted by the
FBI for killing a man during a Columbia University bombing manuever
that went wrong. For over 30 years, she has moved quickly and
quietly through her life without raising suspicions, but the sudden
reappearance of an old comrade has her frightened for her
life.

SHE WAS by Janis Hallowell is a first-rate thriller disguised as
literary fiction. The ongoing chase, during which the present-day
state of events in Doreen's life speed up and become more and more
intense as the pages turn, has a feeling of complete and utter
terror to it. Doreen is the hunted, and the fact that we've met her
at a place where her life is happy and moving along without much
outward care makes the disintegrating state of her affairs that
much more volatile. Like Jason Bourne, she is moving as fast as she
can to keep away from the past nipping angrily at her heels. But
the faster she runs, the faster the past seems to catch up with
her.

In a fury of activity over a few days, Doreen loses her father,
admits her secret identity and past to her clueless husband and
son, and causes a very dramatic turn in the dwindling life of her
brother. Having helped her into hiding after the bombing, her
brother is wanted as well, but it is his pain-addled body that is
the most aggregious affront to his sensibilities. Neither of them
care for the politics of old, and although they have lived through
some politically hypocritical times (Adam, the brother, came of age
in the gay ’70s and ’80s as well), their former selves
are just that --- former. In post 9/11 America, however, terrorism
is terrorism, and everybody is suspect, especially someone who
participated in the radical movement so completely.

Hallowell writes with the pinched and efficient verbiage of a
suspense hound. The flashbacks to Doreen's former life as a
revolutionary and Adam's former life living with a Klaus Nomi-type
gay club superstar, as well as his wrenching time spent in service
in Vietnam, are poignant but informative --- a straightforward
narrative that really does inform and build the characters as we
read. You can almost see them like a 4-D computer graphic --- one
side is clear, then another, until there is a multidimensional
human being beamed into your head as you read. Hallowell manages to
put just enough historical context into the book so that younger
readers who may not remember these types of inciting incidents,
like the Columbia uprising or the Vietnam War, will still feel the
sting of the violence, political vitriol and community clashing
that comes in wartime (much like today).

It is particularly remarkable that, with such heated backdrops,
Hallowell is able to reign herself in and not go overboard in
comparing the guerilla tactics of police during the ’60s and
’70s with the incendiary and insidious tactics of today's
conservative government. Reading about incidents like a Berkley
rally and a trip through Alabama during the Woolworth sit-ins in
the ’60s, we see, through Doreen’s and Adam's eyes, the
kind of violent behavior that sparked the sort of radical activity
that Doreen found herself involved in. Through her son, Hallowell
gets in some appropriate punches for the current paranoid sweep of
young men and women of color and different cultures that 9/11 has
wrought upon our civilization.

SHE WAS is a great book --- written with restrained intensity and
emotional vibrancy, with a respect for the past and a
thinly-but-nicely veiled warning to all of us that the past is
always with us and the future is nothing without it.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 23, 2011

She Was
by Janis Hallowell

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0061243256
  • ISBN-13: 9780061243257