Book Review: New Zapata, Teri Hall (2013)

July 15th, 2013 11:57 am by Kelly Garbato

A Timely Dystopia

four out of five stars

Trigger warning for rape.

Nineteen-year-old Rebecca Johnson – Becca for short – is a young woman who suddenly and unhappily finds herself pregnant – again. Though she loves her young son Luke, his birth almost killed her. Did kill her, in fact: her heart stopped beating for several minutes before doctors were able to revive her. Despite the doctors’ grave warnings that a second pregnancy would most likely kill her, Becca’s husband Chad continues to insist upon sex as his husbandly right. Though she tries to satisfy him in other ways, he rapes and impregnates her. The embryo growing inside her could very well claim her life or leave her permanently disabled, like her own mother Dee, who has spent all nineteen of Becca’s years in a persistent vegetative state. An abortion is her only chance at survival. Trouble is, Becca lives in the Republic of Texas circa 2052.

Shortly before Becca was born, Texas seceded from the United States and installed its own repressive theocracy. The first order of business: assume control of the means of reproduction – namely, women and their bodies. Naturally, abortion is prohibited, although – after an initial backlash – the powers that be begrudgingly allowed exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the (would-be) mother. These exemptions are rarely granted, and require a vote by an (all-male) council and, if the woman is married, the husband’s written permission. To make matters worse, nearly all forms of contraception are outlawed, the sole exception being vasectomies, which also require a health exemption. (Chad would qualify due to his wife’s condition, but he refuses Becca’s requests to have the procedure performed.) As a result of this mandatory fertility, the population of the R of T is growing at an alarming rate, while public assistance to families is need is dropping steadily. “Pro-life” at its finest!

Divorce is outlawed, though in larger, more “liberal” cities, aggrieved couples sometimes opt to live separately. (Becca lives in the border town of New Zapata, which is not so progressive.) While public schooling is available, children are fed a steady stream of propaganda, faith-based misinformation, and outright lies. Any books that counter the government’s official platform – like the seemingly innocuous Gray’s Anatomy – are banned, and their possession could land you a stiff jail sentence. Girls rarely receive more than a tenth-grade education because they’re expected to become mothers, usually at a young age – and mothers aren’t allowed to hold paying jobs. Pregnant women are made to leave their jobs in the third month of pregnancy, so as not to harm the “baby.” The government knows exactly when life begins, right down to individual cases: beginning at adolescence and continuing through menopause, girls and women must submit to monthly pregnancy tests (and boys, DNA screening). The country’s borders are sealed, with no one allowed out or in, so that those in need of employment or who don’t agree with the country’s policies don’t have the option of leaving in search of a better life elsewhere. The R of T is a virtual prison, with its residents held captive to the hatred and religious zealotry of its founding fathers.

Given these obstacles, it’s unlikely that Becca will receive the health care she so desperately needs. The R of T – including many of its citizens – would rather see her dead than let her swallow a pill which would expel unwanted tissue from her uterus.

Enter Aunt Cathy and the Bunco ladies. Born in the days when Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land, Cathy, Mavis, Regina, and the crew still harbor the “old-fashioned” belief that what happens in a woman’s body is her own business, and no one else’s. With the help of some illicit materials undoubtedly smuggled in from the U.S. or Mexico, Becca receives a crash course in women’s health. The women teach her what’s happening in her body so that she can decide for herself whether she wants to pursue a health exemption to terminate the pregnancy – a task that’s easier said than done (and just talking about abortions – even life-saving ones – isn’t all that easy, given how taboo the subject is).

New Zapata is a gripping, stomach-churning dystopia in the tradition of Margaret Atwood. (Think The Handmaid’s Tale meets Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia – it’s got the religious misogyny of the former and the isolated Texas setting of the latter.) The characters, dialogue, and plot feel real and authentic and, while the situation with Becca’s pregnancy is resolved in a somewhat anti-climactic fashion, it rings true just the same.

That said, the Bunco women and their smuggled materials aren’t as stolidly pro-choice as I’d like. The women’s views regarding the morality of abortion vary; for example, Becca and Bonnie both seem to draw the line at three months when, according to the scientific materials available to them, the fetus becomes capable of feeling pain. Which is both realistic and acceptable, as long as they don’t try to force these views on others; each woman should be allowed to make this determination for herself.

And yet the articles given to Becca – supposedly an example of progressive scientific thought – include this gem:

“When the embryo has matured to a fetus and possesses brain wave activity accepted as a signal of that spark of individuality, of humanness, it must not be allowed to be snuffed out. In the embryonic stage, when it does not, we must accept that abortion is not immoral. […] The point of it is that we already know when these stages of development take place. We already know when abortion should never be acceptable, and when it should.” (page 119, emphasis in original)

Except that abortion should always be available as an option. In the modern-day U.S., most abortions take place in the first trimester; those performed later are either due to the health of the mother or the fetus, or because the mother had trouble obtaining an abortion sooner, usually because of a lack of funds and/or restrictive abortion laws. In a society where abortion is both legal and readily available, the overwhelming majority of women who find themselves carrying an unwanted pregnancy will terminate it quickly – easily within the first trimester. Women simply don’t carry an embryo/fetus around for eight months and then wake up one morning only to change their minds – and it’s not okay to restrict the rights of all women to protect fetuses against what “might be” possible. (Also, good luck finding a doctor who will perform an “abortion of convenience” at eight months!) Furthermore, legally compelling a woman to carry a pregnancy to term – at any stage – effectively creates a second, lesser class of humans that has fewer rights to their bodies than others. This is tantamount to forcing men and children to donate non-essential organs to those in need. Unless you think that women bring forced birth upon themselves by having sex, which is a whole ‘nother bag of misogynist beans. (And tell me: would you similarly compel a father to donate a kidney to his child if she were in renal failure? She’s only there because he made the choice to have sex!)

There’s also some unfortunate (but realistic) confusion of language, such as when Becca uses the loaded term “baby” to refer to embryos and fetuses. As an ethical vegan I both laughed and cringed at the discussion of animal rights/welfare and personhood, again both muddled but true to life. Most people do think themselves lovers of animals, even as they exploit them for food, clothing, entertainment, cosmetics, and the like.

There were also a few minor plot points I took issue with: for example, I find it hard to believe that Becca’s lawyer Esperanza would be so ill-prepared, such as when she fails to interview Becca’s doctors about her brush with death prior to the exemption hearings. And Jim’s self-pitying aside about “why do girls always go for jerks”? Ugh, don’t get me started. The last thing New Zapata needs is a heroic “Nice Guy.”

Additionally, though it takes place in Texas, there are very few people of color to be found in New Zapata. Becca explains that this is because, prior to closing the border, the R of T deported all of its undocumented citizens. According to the 2010 census, 37.6% of the Texas population is Hispanic, with just 45.3% non-Hispanic whites. While not all of these citizens are documented, their children sure would be. Even assuming a mass exodus from Texas, such a lily-white population just doesn’t seem likely.

New Zapata is self-published, but this only shows in minor copyediting errors; there are more than a few lonely half-pairs of quotation marks, for instance. Don’t let this throw you off, though – it’s a compelling story that will continue to haunt you after you’ve turned the last page. Think of Becca and Dee the next time a conservative politician or talking head makes an asinine comment about “legitimate rape,” “making lemons out of lemonade,” or the like.

To quote a line from Becca’s inner monologue: “It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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2 Responses to “Book Review: New Zapata, Teri Hall (2013)”

  1. Book Review: Christian Nation: A Novel, Frederic C. Rich (2013) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] emotion of The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 – or even Teri Hall’s recent, lesser-known New Zapata. (Driven by fundamentalist Christians, Texas has seceded from the Union in order to institute a […]

  2. fuck yeah reading: 2013 books » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] New Zapata, Teri Hall (2013); reviewed here […]

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