Letting the Truth Ring Out
By Alice Hoffman, $17.95
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons
IF you thought that the AIDS scare couldn't touch you, that you were removed from the horrors of the disease for which there is no cure, read Alice Hoffman's At Risk and think again. A modern day novel which takes place in a town on the Massachusetts North Shore, At Risk teaches that no one is safe from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and that all of us are exposed to more than the medical harms of the AIDS virus.
Hoffman's novel suggests that in adition to the phyiscal torture of AIDS, the disease wreaks mental and emotional havoc on those in contact with the diseased. At Risk is a novel with a message: with such a sweeping affect, the virus can only be stopped if we work together and not against each other to educate the ignorant and fight the paranoia and irrationality that has infected our society.
Hoffman's theme about cooperation and AIDS is perhaps the strongest aspect of the book. The style of the novel is almost strictly dialogue, and when Hoffman attempts to include detailed description in the book, it seems artificial. But then again, the style of Hoffman's book may just reflect her view of the AIDS crisis. Simple cooperation is what she says is needed to find a cure for the virus, and excess analysis and irrelevant details are unnecessary and best forgotten.
The novel's opening words are "there is a wasp in the kitchen," and with such an ominous beginning we are immediately set on edge, armed with the knowledge that somewhere in the novel, someone is in danger. The wasp scare turns out to be incidental, but it does serve to introduce us to the family of main characters whose lives are destined to fall apart.
We meet Charlie, the eight year-old newt expert who, with his best friend Servin, hopes to capture a giant turtle in the marshes near his house. We meet his father Ivan, an astronomer whose obsession is to study the supernova in Chile, and his mother Polly, a professional photographer who feels as though she does not spend enough time with her children. And Hoffman also introduces us to the 11 year-old Amanda, whose goals are simple--to study gymnastics with Bela Karyouli and to have her braces off.
Hoffman draws us into the minds of each of the main characters to show us what each one is like, but the one we get to know the best is Amanda, who daily practices her floor routine to Madonna's "True Blue" and hopes she will never grow above 5'2" so that she can go to the Olympics. We watch her push herself practice after practice, with her upcoming meet as the only object of her attention. But we also watch her throw up after every practice, break out into sweat in her sleep, lose weight and pass out in front of her friends.
WHEN Amanda's fever passes 103 degrees and she is diagnosed as having AIDS, we are hardly surprised. Modern media coverage of the disease has made us more able to recognize AIDS symptoms than those of the chicken pox, and Hoffman's title, At Risk, is less than subtle. But the injustice that an 11 year-old who had a blood transfusion five years earlier, before blood donors were screened for AIDS, could contract this fatal disease hits home, and because we know Amanda so well, we feel as though a close friend is a victim of the disease.
Not only do we watch the virus eat away Amanda's life, but we also watch it destroy the lives of her family and her friends. Polly and Ivan begin to argue and then cease to communicate at all, as each parent tries to justify his daughter's death. Charlie retreats into his own thoughts when his best friend's mother refuses to let Servin play with him anymore because she feels her son might catch AIDS from touching Charlie's hand.
Hoffman's portrayal of the town's reaction to Amanda's case of AIDS, however, is the most chilling apsect of the novel. The parent's associaton begins to picket Amanda's school when it learns that she will continue to take classes although she has AIDS.
Amanda's friends begin to shy away from her, thinking they may get AIDS from using a sink after her. Even Amanda's gymnastics coach gives in at the end. He tells Amanda that she may no longer practice gymnastics because blood from blisters on her hands might infect other team members. His evidence is a vague medical report which he is convinced a parent fabricated, but the fear in the community is too great for reason to win out.
Polly remarks that, "I thought these things only happened in Florida," and it is then that we realize how acute the AIDS crisis is--for here the community in question is well educated. They are not ignorant of the realities of the disease, but they choose to give in to their irrational fears.
Despite the hopes of Amanda's supporters, of her family and of her friends, no miracle cure for AIDS emerges, and at the end of the novel Amanda is rushed off to Massachussetts Children's Hospital to meet her certain death. The idea that a cure will one day, emerge, however, is strong, and the novel hints that if we can convince society to accept the diseased and work for them instead of against them, then perhaps a cure is possible.