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An Empathy Machine

Author Mary Pauline Lowry, after the fire is out

Rhonda, the heroine of Mary Pauline Lowry’s magical novel, The Earthquake Machine, is a young woman lost in the borderlands of late adolescence, family dysfunction, sexual identity and the mysteries of love, desire and friendship. On a river trip with friends and chaperones along a real borderland, the Rio Grande, Rhonda lights out for the territories – in this case, into Mexico.

Rhonda is sister to the half-brothers Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. Her adventures in an otherworldly landscape are mirrored by her heroine’s journey through alienation and confusion to some kind of understanding of herself and the mad, threatening, beautiful human world.

Rhonda’s looking for the only real friend she’s ever had, her family’s former gardener, Jesus. She disguises herself as a boy, takes up briefly with some ruthless and colorful banditas, finds her friend, learns the delicate art of painting alibrijes, abandons her disguise, survives an earthquake and goes looking for herself in the rubble.

Rhonda meets Genevieve, an aged Southern woman abandoned and alone in Mexico for decades. In a moving scene Rhonda gives the lonely woman a vibrator she’s found in a local market. The scene is all about caring and friendship, though. It’s not Eros in play here, it’s more like the kind of compassion that flows from Our Lady of Guadalupe. Eros is alive in other parts of the book, however. There are explicit scenes in the book that might have frightened off young adult fiction publishers who’d prefer something like the sexless Hunger Games or the chaste Twilight series.

It’s true that desire is not left unfulfilled as it is in Catcher in the Rye. But then Rhonda doesn’t wind up in a mental hospital like Holden. Just sayin’…

Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye for adults and it became a favorite of young adults. Lowry’s written a book for young adults that should become a favorite of adults. There’s a reason for this, and it has to do with Lowry’s confident artistry.

As I’ve noted before, fiction enhances our capacity for empathy. Historian Lynn Hunt believes the rise of the novel led to the rise in respect for human rights, for empathy for distant others beyond our kin and village. Other recent studies confirm that fiction shapes our brains in ways that help us learn understanding, respect and compassion for others.

Through Lowry’s writing I lived through the emotional and sexual adventures of a coming-of-age girl in a way you would think might be out of reach for a fifty-something male. Lowry opened the experience for me, more confirmation of the deep connection between narrative art and the enhancement of human empathy.

Young women will love this book, but it would be to the benefit of all if The Earthquake Machine became a best-seller among young American men, who, let us stipulate, may not have inherited from their fathers sufficient understanding of America’s young women.

As I read the book, I kept thinking of Mattie Ross, the heroine of Charles Portis’ terrific novel, True Grit. By the end of that book, Mattie has withdrawn into herself. A woman possessed of her extraordinary qualities can find little room to grow on the American frontier. Lowry’s Rhonda will not share Mattie’s fate. In part this is because the world has changed a bit for the better. But it’s also because Lowry and her generation won’t let her.

According to her biography, during times when Lowry wasn’t writing novels or screenplays, she fought forest fires and worked for a domestic violence shelter, among other things. She clearly knows a thing or two about the earthquakes that can rock our lives. She knows empathy, too, and her readers are all the luckier for that.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith