Does history repeat itself, or would it be better described as a tape loop on which we play our solo? In "The Red Squad" by E.M. Broner, Anka Pappas receives an envelope of surveillance records of her antiwar activities during the Vietnam War. Suddenly we rewind to the late 1960s, but with the present day spliced in.
Anka experiences a series of flashbacks to the days when she and her ABD (all but dissertation) colleagues at a Detroit university shared an office that they called the Bullpen. In addition to working on their dissertations, they taught and worked for the underground, which transported conscientious objectors across the Canadian border. They celebrated dissertation completion, the music of the Haight and Motown, all the while laughing at their egregious students.
Anka had one particular student that Broner uses as court jester -- during the flashbacks we read how the Bullpenners often requested a "Mr. Berger story."
She indulged them with this student's errors in his composition class, such as the first line of his story, "It was a warm, genital evening." Broner's humor and cynicism when comparing Berger to our most recent two-term president and his malapropisms are a delight and a good break from the heaviness of the theme, which is "the forever war -- the one that doesn't end."
The Bullpenners' bond tightened both through shared support and strained relationships. Broner also presents us with the many social issues of race, culture, aging and generational differences in "The Red Squad's" Bullpenners. Anka pines for Kevin, a Jesuit who wants to break his vows and who seems more interested in the wife of another colleague. Jack Bernstein, whose bumper sticker reads "Israel Is Real," goes to live on a kibbutz and wants Anka to join him. Ron Ivory, an African American already awarded tenure and thus eligible for a private office, has his desk shoved up against theirs due to lack of space. Another, Noble O'Dwyer, is arrested, then disappears while out on bail. One by one they all leave the Bullpen, whether by attrition through the university, or questionable behavior or their own choice -- but all these characters reappear at the story's end when one Bullpenner is identified as a fugitive Weatherman and the rest reunite for his support.
Broner weaves these flashbacks with Anka's present-day life as a professor at a different university but with the same activist energy: She protests another misguided war -- the one in Iraq.
When Anka gets arrested for protesting with the Student Black Caucus, she meets in jail the Gray Brigade, gray-haired, osteoporosis-ridden women with sensible shoes who provide a litany of protests they've participated in throughout their lifetimes -- starting in the 1950s with the Korean War and moving on to the Vietnam War, atrocities in Central America and the Cold War and on into our current day.
In writing of the college students Anka first taught from long ago, Broner describes how they are idealists and antiwar as well as right thinkers working for the conservative media. They include an overzealous African American student who takes one of Anka's class assignments very seriously (much to his own detriment) and a Vietnam vet poet who goes by the monikers Fearless Phil and then Fearful Phil as he learns to let down his guard.
Anka's students in the present day, however, are apathetic and don't have to worry about the draft. When she tells her current students a tale about her past life, about how one of the Bullpenners was arrested and eventually fired because he'd gone to meet with a student in his home where someone was smoking marijuana, the unsympathetic response was, "They should have met publicly at a Starbucks."
Broner's snapshot-style in "The Red Squad" superbly ties together the liberals and the conservatives, the passionate and apathetic, across all genres of society in both the past and the present -- history as prequel, sequel, rerun. As the author writes: "We go on with our shared lives." Her novel delivers the message that we may all be Fearful or Fearless Phil at times, feeling as if we are crazy watching the endless war story rewound and replayed, but we still have hope: Our own lives possess a separate rhythm, and we always have creative authority over them.
Wallen is the author of the novel "MoonPies and Movie Stars."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun