Mark Helprin, award-winning novelist, former member of the Israeli Army and Air Force, foreign and military policy strategist, comes to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his latest novel, In Sunlight and In Shadow. Strange, you say, for a site devoted to law and political thought to devote time to a novel, a love story at that. However, Helprin’s book is a story of many things that all seem to connect and hold together. The tapestry created is of love, honor, dignity, and the freedom to act heroically within a democratic political and social order that trims, calculates, and forgets the preconditions of its freedom and prosperity. Helprin’s novel might best be described as an extended meditation on Beatrice’s response in the second Canto of the Inferno, amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare “love moved me and made me speak.” This, Helprin notes, was Dante’s explanation for why he wrote the Divine Comedy. Set in New York City in 1946, the novel is also about a confident and united postwar America. Within this setting we are treated to the grand love story of Harry Copeland and Catherine Thomas Hale.
Harry, a former paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne during the war, served as a “pathfinder” charged with marking the way, conducting reconnaissance, and creating havoc in advance of the main body of paratroopers. He doesn’t stumble in the aftermath of the war, but Harry isn’t exactly thriving either. Instead, he is somewhat aloof from his father’s fine leather goods business, and otherwise he forgoes choosing the life he should lead.
Harry’s indecisiveness soon leaves him when he spies Catherine on the Staten Island Ferry. His love for her, immediately evident, calls him out of himself, and demands the defense of the things he loves. He must win her and prove to himself that he is worthy of her love. His business is set upon by the mafia, so Harry will protect it when the law fails him, refusing, ultimately, to run or pay protection money. His actions of rising above the law to defend the law are not really about upholding the business as a going concern per se, or his need to impress Catherine, daughter of a fantastically wealthy family, but the vindication of his immigrant Jewish father and his family. Their memory will stand, as will the community formed among Harry and the employees that make its goods, many of them being immigrants and newly-minted American citizens. The story is beautiful. As one reviewer noted, his only displeasure with the novel was that it had to end. Agreed.