A bad seed lurks in the American soil and E.L. Doctorow has seen it take root. From his 1961 debut, Welcome to Hard Times, to the 1989 blockbuster, Billy Bathgate, Doctorow has explored how innocent dreamers warp toward the criminal life. In his latest collection, Sweet Land Stories, Doctorow hauls this preoccupation out to the high lonesome prairies, conjuring a cast of religious visionaries and orphans on the lam.
If the characters here share any quality, it is their singular belief in motion. In "A Home on the Plains," a teenage son and his widowed mother move from Chicago to a brick farmhouse and proceed to fleece prospective suitors. The landscape seems to egg them on. As the narrator says, "I was by now thinking I could wrest some hope from the loneliness of the farm with views of the plains as far as you could see." After their plan has born its awful fruit, they torch their prairie idyll and hit the road again.
Motion brings both escape and redemption in Sweet Land Stories, but not in the spiritual sense. In "Baby Wilson" a man's girlfriend suddenly abducts a baby from the hospital. Rather than bring the tot back, the man shoves everyone into his SUV and lights out for the highway. He dumps the car, gets a new one, and procures a few stolen credit cards before he even questions whether he's doing the right thing.
In the past, Doctorow's characters wrestled with good and evil, but here they leave the moral baggage by the side of the road. They are pragmatists first and will do whatever it takes to get what they want. When one character's firstborn is stolen from her by an abusive husband, she coldly considers killing the lout before she realizes that doing so would ensure she'd never see the baby again.
In the final two stories, Doctorow explores what happens when this kind of lethal pragmatism takes on the mantle of righteousness. In "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," an FBI deputy fights a presidential administration that is trying to cover up the chilling spectacle of the child Bush left behind. Though Doctorow overplays his hand here, the message is clear. America is great when it allows people to strive, achieve, and re-create themselves as necessary. Sweet Land Stories paints a grim portrait of what happens when those birthrights are abused.