“Divided Kingdom?”

Once upon a time, I owned a children’s bookstore.  My two children grew up at Oz Books in Southwest Harbor, Maine, which I owned from 1982 to 1997. In a way, it seemed that we grew up together reading children’s books. In high school I read a lot of science fiction, abandoning that genre during the activist ’60s. Plenty was going on in real life; American political culture became my more typical reading theme, along with a novel or two on the side.

Last year, I read British author Rupert Thomson’s “Divided Kingdom,” which I call political science fiction. Responding to a country’s decline into consumerism, turpitude, racism and violence, the powers that be establish in its place four independent republics. Citizens are assigned to live out their lives in one, based on their nature that’s determined by Shakespeare’s four humors:  sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic. The book’s civil-servant protagonist frequents all of the republics, affording the reader a terrifying view of life in separatist societies.

Fiction or possible reality?  With so much political divisiveness in the United States today I worry for the future of our democracy. I recall leading a discussion on George Orwell’s “1984” at the Southwest Harbor Public Library in the 1970s. There were doubters in the audience, but who would have believed the prevalence of technology in our 21st century daily lives?

To combat my residual terror I pick up novels that depict family relationships. This summer, back in Maine, I read three affecting novels set on the Maine coast: “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout; “Red Hook Road” by Ayelet Waldman; and “Cost” by Roxanna Robinson. I heard Robinson speak at the Southwest Harbor Library. She reminded me that if politics can’t bring us together, our common humanity — understood through words — still can.

This piece first appeared in the “Books that Made a Difference” section of the Arizona Jewish Post (Sept. 3, 2010), azjewishpost.com.

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