The Humanity Project
- Jean Thompson
- Blue Rider Press
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by C.B. Santore
- May 31, 2013
In a circle of connected characters, a novel based on a chilling murder explores the meaning of hope and redemption.
I get a feeling of foreboding when I read Jean Thompson. Something bad is going to happen. It’s lurking in the background, this bad thing, just out of sight.
Bad things do happen to Thompson’s characters, some due to their own folly, some to chance. The characters in her novels and short stories struggle to overcome the past. They are uncertain about the present and apprehensive of the future. Her heroes are ordinary people, doing ordinary things in an unpredictable world — and surviving. And that’s what keeps me reading Thompson: her view of the indefatigable nature of people to muddle ahead, to rise above, to get better.
Her latest novel, The Humanity Project, begins on a note of anxiety: “We were afraid of so many things …” Indeed, we know from our own experiences that there is plenty in the real world to worry about — life-altering illness, economic calamity, acts of evil — and ample examples of what was unimaginable one minute becoming reality the next.
In this novel, Thompson’s fourth, the big, scary thing that hangs over the story is a high school shooting. Linnea is living with her mother and stepfather, their son and Linnea’s little half-brother Max, and her stepsister and nemesis, Megan, when Linnea witnesses Megan’s murder. By a strange twist, Linnea escapes physically unharmed but emotionally damaged. Her mother, unable to cope with Linnea’s subsequent behavior problems, ships her off to live with her hapless, underemployed father Art.
The first few chapters are disconnected, each more like a short story than part of a continuous narrative, and are told by a third-person narrator focusing on one or two characters. The threads of these disparate chapters come together as the novel progresses, and the circles of the characters’ lives expand, intersecting those of others. Christie Schuyler, the nurse for an elderly patient, Mrs. Foster, is Art’s neighbor. Mrs. Foster also employs Conner, hardworking and opportunistic, as her handyman. Conner becomes an acquaintance of Linnea.
They are people with aspirations, flaws, good points and bad. They struggle with depression, financial hardships and just plain bad luck. When a son tries to help his father, or a father help his daughter, or a friend help a friend, they stumble. Sometimes they do the right things for selfish reasons; sometimes they do questionable things out of desperation.
Mrs. Foster, Christie’s elderly patient, is a rich widow. She wants to endow a foundation, The Humanity Project, the purpose of which would be to, well, benefit humanity. She asks Christie to head the foundation and form something tangible of her amorphous idea. The foundation will be all about redemption, providing needy individuals with the means to start over, reinvent themselves.
Mrs. Foster thinks the foundation should go beyond merely funneling money to worthy causes. She wants to tackle big, imponderable questions. If people have their basic needs for food, shelter, medical care met will they no longer behave badly? Is it possible to inspire unselfishness, to motivate people to be more virtuous? Her two grown daughters think these are the ruminations of a doddering old woman who is losing her grip on reality, wasting their inheritance, and risking her well-being. She’s taking in strays — feral cats and the boy Conner, who probably is taking advantage of her gullibility.
The project is idealistic, its success improbable, but it is also wondrous and inspired. The foundation moves forward, shaped by the able Christie with the help of Mrs. Foster’s cagey lawyer and an ex-con who becomes Christie’s pragmatic assistant. At a conference sponsored by The Humanity Project, one of the speakers argues that individuals don’t evolve, populations do. Maybe it takes an idea like The Humanity Project, propelled by cynics and pragmatists alike, each for their own reasons, to help us evolve toward being a better human race.
Christie sums up the novel’s theme in her opening remarks at the conference: “to be human is to be broken. To be of the world is to be soiled by the world. To be alive is to be, in spite of everything, hopeful.” Linnea is one of those soiled by the world, and Thompson gives her the last word in an epilogue that is gut-wrenching in its authenticity.
The Humanity Project, like Thompson’s short stories that I’ve sampled, can be uncomfortable to read, but what I like about Thompson is the abiding respect she shows for her characters’ humanity. It might be crazy to be hopeful, but the alternative as Thompson sees it, is inhuman.
C. B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax, Va.