Enemy in the Garden: A Novel of Intrigue and Suspense
By Harriet Pike
Nora Miller’s sha shtil Jewish life in 1970s suburban Long Island ends dramatically one morning as she spots a swastika burned into her lawn. This symbol, the dreaded logo of the Third Reich, has its intended effect, terrorizing Nora and leaving her to wonder how her hitherto innocuous Jewish existence could have sparked such a hateful action.
Searching for answers, Nora soon regards her neighbours in a new and different, not to say paranoid, light. Looking at women with their children at a playground, she wonders, “Did these Aryan mothers already have the [anti-Semitism] virus and are [they] transmitting it to their children?”
When the police follow up in what to Nora is a rather desultory fashion, she takes matters into her own hands in two dramatically different ways. First, she somewhat strangely considers writing a master’s thesis on anti-Semitism in America. It turns out, she had been thinking about graduate school and this incident sparks in her the instant brainwave to research and craft a dissertation on the topic. Now, if the academic route were her sole response, there would be no novel of suspense and intrigue, so it is the second course of action that Nora takes that propels the story.
Perhaps now paying more attention, Nora hears about an organization in her town called the American Clan, a self-described “extreme white supremacist group.” It seems rather unlikely that Nora would be unaware of this group, but as she ruefully acknowledges, “You apparently edit out things you don’t want to acknowledge.”
Determined to get to the bottom of the perceived hate crime perpetrated against her, Nora begins attending Clan meetings hoping, apparently, that she doesn’t look “too Jewish.” This ultimately sets off a chain of events that leads to the Clan’s kidnapping of her husband and her efforts, together with a private investigator she hires, to rescue/ransom him back. Whether she can ever get her former life back is something entirely else to ponder.
While Enemy in the Garden’s storyline has its moments, the novel suffers from a number of basic literary faults. Specifically, the dialogue is often clumsy and the action somewhat predictable to aficionados of the thriller genre. As well, if Pike had actually written Enemy in the Garden in the late 1970s, the book might resonate more fully with readers familiar with its milieu.
As it is, contemporary readers, steeped in the new anti-Semitism as it pertains to Israel and anti-Zionism, may not have the longer historical view to fully appreciate Nora Miller’s visceral responses and actions.
For this, one needs some understanding of how the anti-Semitism virus manifested itself in the last four decades or so of the 20th century. It would help to empathize with Nora if one were aware of the white supremacist organizations and neo-Nazi groups that came out of the woodwork in the 1960s in Canada and the United States in response to the changing faces of the countries. While they tended to be equal-opportunity haters, the top item on their agendas was a particularly noxious and dangerous brand of anti-Semitism and its newest incarnation, Holocaust denial.
Canada ultimately dealt with the likes of Ernst Zundel and James Keegstra through a legislative and legal anti-hate framework. In the United States, however, the First Amendment to the American constitution has served to shield hate speech. Add in the expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment providing constitutional protection of the “right to bear arms” and the result was often armed and dangerous right-wing extremist militias like Pike’s American Clan.
So, while Enemy in the Garden may fall somewhat flat as a piece of fiction, it does serve a useful purpose as a resource for reflection. Anyone teaching a course based on Nora’s putative MA thesis, or simply interested in the topic of anti-Semitism in American (or Canadian) society, will find the book helpful in framing a series of discussion questions or topics for thoughtful consideration. In fact, Pike appends a Reading Group Guide to the narrative comprising seven such questions to get the ball rolling.
While the new anti-Semitism represented by the anti-Israel phenomena of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the apartheid libel remains predominant in today’s consciousness, old style anti-Semitism hasn’t completely disappeared.
Enemy in the Garden may make readers think about their own reactions to seeing, for example, the odd swastika daubed on a community facility. Is it a one-off or symptomatic of something deeper? How shattering is the impact on a community that imagines itself well integrated into a society in which they live as proud and visible Jews? In what ways should we respond individually and communally to such an abhorrent deed and what role can our non-Jewish neighbours play? What is our responsibility as Jews to the larger issue of combating racism in all its forms?
In the end, then, the best part of Harriet Pike’s book may well be its title. Anti-Semitism in any and all of its manifestations is a weed that must be plucked to allow the health and beauty of the garden to thrive.