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Bad Angel.

On Mother's day, I sat down, to read Bad Angel, Helen Benedict s sharply powerful novel about teenage motherhood and poverty, adoption and class - key factors in the bedeviled question: Who is a mother? And who decides? On Mother's Day, 1996, politicians, tax resisters and feminists are arguing about these matters as fiercely as ever, and as fiercely badmouthing those plaster saints, our mothers.

In fact, since the early 1970s, debates about who is a mother have become steadily more poisonous, with the consolidation of hostility toward welfare and women recipients, with the rise of a "racial liberalism" that sanctions transracial adoption, with the backlash against feminism. The debates have been particularly affected by an unpredicted consequence of Roe v. Wade, which not only gave girls and women the right to decide whether or not to stay pregnant, but gave millions the latitude to decide whether or not to be mothers of the children they bore. What little compassion is left in public discussion of these issues is bestowed on relentlessly politicized images of the helpless, innocent child who must be saved, via punitive public policies, from its bad-news "mother."

For Bad Angel, Benedict has pulled an epigraph from that suicide-mother, Sylvia Plath - "What is so real as the cry of a child?" - and aimed it, lance-like, straight through that shifty, sham compassion. Listen, she urges, to the heartbreaking cries of girls and women, the mothers whose resourceless vulnerability is behind the at-risk kids we pity so easily. She persuades us to hear the cry of Bianca, a fourteen-year-old, poor but canny, unwed mother in New York; the cry of Theresa, Bianca's mother from the Dominican Republic; and the cry of Sarah, would-be mother, infertile but white and well-to-do, who wishes to take Bianca's baby, Rosalba, for her own.

Through these voices - and the voice of Roberto, a young man hopelessly in love with Bianca and determined to save her - the novel wrestles with some of the horrifying complexities that have beset motherhood at the end of our century. As Bianca puts it, "There is something about civilization that is real fucked up, and now we gotta pay for it by thinking about things only angels and God should ever have to decide - like whether to keep a human baby or give it away."

Bad Angel is constructed out of shifting first-person narratives - Benedict's ear for the cadences, quirks and special knowledge of her characters is superb - that brilliantly clarify the kinds of relationships that poverty mandates on the northeast fringes of Manhattan's Upper West Side (and elsewhere), relationships that land girls in trouble more often than not. Benedict also delineates trenchantly the relationships created by the clash of poverty and wealth, particularly when an adorable baby brings these two conditions together.

While Theresa speaks her anguish to la Virgen de la Altagracia, praying for guidance and for the resources to protect her daughter and granddaughter, Bianca struggles with her teenage yearnings, her responsibilities to the baby and her new determination to be "somebody." In the process, she grasps what she's o up against as a poor, teenage mother.

I feel like some big hand reached down from the sky and took my willpower away. The baby, Mami and that caseworker, and now Roberto - everybody making decisions about Bianca's life 'cept Bianca herself.... I feel like Rosalba would feel if she had the brains - people pushing me around like I'm nothing, nobody listening to me, nobody thinking about what I might want, nobody asking me if I got an opinion. Nobody even thinking about me as a human being. (p.207)

This relatively brief novel does a remarkable job of rendering the worlds of sentiment and strategy that impel the mothers, while at the same time creating a sharply suspenseful plot line: I was unable to predict which woman the baby would ultimately call "mama." The melding of social commentary with rich character development is admirable. Bad Angel compels the most respectful reconsideration of the questions "Who is a mother?" and "What does class have to do with it?"
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Solinger, Rickie
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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