The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale: A Political Fable For Our Time, by George C. Leef (New York-Nashville: Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press, 2022, 265 pp.)
Reviewed by Christine Sunderland
With the silencing of civil debate, many have called for a cultural renewal in the arts. For decades, perhaps half a century, film and fiction have slid into an amoral universe, reinforced by today’s silencing speech and encouraging violence. Perhaps we could converse through storytelling. Perhaps it would be more civil. Perhaps we would listen to one another.
We, who share traditional values, have tried to keep our families and faith communities intact, following our Judeo-Christian ethos and informed conscience. We have watched our world slip down the slope of nihilism, materialism, and self, to the present day. It may be too little too late, this concern for our culture, but a few of us are bravely offering an alternative, if folks wake up in time.
My own seven novels published over the last fifteen years deal with these foundational themes of faith, family, and freedom, the bedrock of our American founding (and the West) and still of vital importance to our survival. The stories, to make a difference, must be set in the present or close future or in a parallel universe to the present. They must warn, educate, and inform. They must be novels of ideas that can be debated respectfully. In a sense I am harkening to Dickens and Dostoevsky, to C.S. Lewis and Jane Austen, but with stories debating today’s crises of conscience and moral law. Melanie Phillips (The Legacy), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go), P.D. James (Children of Men), and George Orwell (1984) have written such novels, warning us. We need more.
Thus, it is with thanksgiving that I read George C. Leef’s first novel, The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale, A Political Fable For Our Time. The title tells us there is a message. Fables do this, call for our attention. The Woke need to be awakened, for they are sleeping through the reality they are creating, as they burn down civilization and turn the Western world to ash. They, perhaps, do not know what they are doing. Perhaps they are simply pawns in a greater game of evil, or simply totalitarianism.
George Leef’s plot is simple. Progressive journalist Jennifer Van Arsdale interviews retired progressive American President Farnsworth for a biography. All goes well the first day, and they are in friendly agreement with Farnsworth’s policies that were remaking America. But walking through Laguna Beach at the end of her day, Jen is accosted by thugs. Saved by a neighborhood peacekeeper and introduced to others in his circle, she listens to opinions regarding these policies and their devastating effect on local communities. Slightly shaken by these reports, Jen returns to Washington D.C. and interviews a handful of sources by phone, people who knew Farnsworth in the past. Jen is awakening to reality.
But what to do? How can she write this biography? She is, after all, under contract.
The interviews take up most of the novel, and these conversations are handled well by the author, with varying issues raised and backstories rendering believable characters. Each person adds to the picture and to Jen’s awakening.
Two of the conversations are with descendants of immigrants from Poland and Russia, who would not recognize the America they thought was a refuge of freedom and opportunity. They had fled from tyranny – silencing and imprisonment, gulags and forced labor, torture and executions. Was America heading there?
Through these interviews we see the state of the country today, the looting and high crime and homelessness, the censoring and the absence of debate, the criminalizing of language as “hate” speech, the politicized judiciary, the unequal rule of law, the use of impeachment to further power, the “bread and circuses” to sooth the populace, and much more. We see how Stalin’s head of security, Beria, said, “‘Give me the man, and I will find you the crime’” (215).
Would that more novelists step up to the challenge and contribute a few awakening works of fiction. Would that more producers filmed such stories to educate and inform. There are beginnings, and there are signs of this happening, but more must heed the call to write novels of ideas. We are at the end of the day, living in the “remains” of civil civilization, as Ishiguro lamented in The Remains of the Day. It’s time to tell a tale like George Leef’s The Awakening of Jennifer Arnsdale and wake up America.
Will there be a sequel? What happens next? Perhaps George Leef will write one. In the meantime, wake up, America. Please read this book and produce the movie.
Highly recommended for book discussion groups and classroom debate.
George Leef is Director of Editorial Content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He holds a BA from Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin and a law degree from Duke. He was a vice president of the John Locke Foundation and director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy until the Pope Center became an independent entity in 2003. Previously he taught economics, law, and logic at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. He has contributed to many journals. This is his first novel.
Christine Sunderland is author of seven award-winning literary novels about faith, family, and freedom. Her most recent novels, Angel Mountain (Wipf and Stock, 2020) and The Fire Trail (eLectio, 2016), set in the present in the UC Berkeley area, consider cancel culture and academic freedom.