About two-thirds of the way through Lucia Orth’s latest novel, Baby Jesus Pawnshop (Permanent Press 2008), protagonist Rue Caldwell experiences an epiphany. As Ferdinand Marcos is being inaugurated to the office of President of the Phillipines, Rue realizes that her position as the wife of an American counter-insurgency specialist renders her a willing conspirator in the political system that is responsible for all of the injustices, economic and otherwise, she has seen throughout her stay in that nation. In the author’s words, Rue “felt a dread, unnameable, that by not objecting, following life lived on an iron track, she was also a part of the farce and the horror.” This sentiment nicely captures the position of Rue throughout the novel and underscores the tension that drives this insightful and intensely humane political thriller forward.
Throughout the novel, Orth demonstrates not just a strong familiarity with early-1980s Phillipine politics, but a solid understanding of the relationship between the members of the rank-and file who live history as it occurs and the larger movements that get recorded in the history books. This gift is especially clear in the novel’s opening pages. As Rue wanders through a marketplace in Manila, she is forced to come to grips with the poverty that surrounds her, and the extent of this poverty comes across almost viscerally when a vendor offers to sell the protagonist an infant described as having “the unhealthy color of raw gray dough.” Juxtaposed against the festivities surrounding the aforementioned inauguration (not to mention the silk scarves and high-heel shoes favored by Imelda Marcos), the poverty that Rue witnesses underscores the absolute injustice of the economic disparity between the haves and have-nots—and, needless to say, serves as a telling explanation for why revolutions occur.
All of this is to simply to say that Baby Jesus Pawnshop is ripe for all manner of Marxist interpretation. Politics aside, it’s also a great read. Orth’s gifts for character and setting are apparent throughout the proceedings, and her political “agenda” (for lack of a better term) never tarnishes the story. Indeed, where a lesser novelist might stoop to the errant didacticism of moral high-handedness, Orth revels in parsing the complexities of ethical gray areas. Overall, a compelling and thought-provoking read.