Civil Liberties vs Knee-Jerk Patriotism

Jennifer Natalya Fink’s provocative and ambitious novel. Burn (Suspect Thoughts Press; San Francisco, $16.95), could not have been released at a better time. As politicians grapple with ways to curtail civil liberties and concoct ways to monitor activities deemed suspicious, a book that revisits the McCarthy era seems prescient.

Set in the fictitious Sylvan Lake Collective Colony, a small upstate New York settlement of Jewish former Brooklynites active in the Communist Party, Burn focuses on the Party’s decline. Meetings are rendered in rich, evocative prose. Indeed, readers will vicariously experience the incessant bickering of Colony members as they try to decide how best to deal with FBI probes, overt and covert surveillance, and the ongoing desire to foment revolution.

At the center of the tale is Sylvia Edelman, a savvy, menopausal widow and passionate gardener. Sylvia tends her tomatoes and zucchini tenaciously, eagerly groveling in the mud and grime. Although many Colonists are leaving the community for safer suburbs, Sylvia intends to stay put, growing her vegetables and living simply. This plan goes awry, however, when out of nowhere, a young boy—naked except for dog tags indicating that his name is Simon—shows up on her plot of land. Is he a government agent? A runaway teen? Or simply a kid who has lost his way?

In short order, Sylvia and Simon become lovers. While there is no question that this is pedophilia, the literary mix of sex and politics works. Simon, a male Lolita, arouses Sylvia to heretofore unimagined lust; because he is mute, the comfort he offers is enveloping and complete.

Throughout the novel, McCarthy’s efforts to eviscerate “the enemy within” are juxtaposed with Sylvia’s attempts to distract herself from worldly concerns. But Burn is about more than one woman’s escape from the machinations of tyrannical leaders. In fact, the novel addresses the impact of government surveillance on both leftists and the apolitical, and interrogates the meaning of personal loyalty, sexual propriety, and civic commitment. The result is wise, timely, and often amusing.

Despite the humor, Burn offers a serious message: When human rights and civil liberties are sacrificed to knee-jerk patriotism, everyone suffers. Read it and be reminded.  

Eleanor J. Bader is co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism and a contributor to In These Times, Library Journal, The New York Law Journal and The Progressive.