We’ve covered a lot of fairly high profile books here on this very blog, but now it’s time to turn our attention to a real heavyweight- a worldwide bestseller, beloved by readers both young and old. Yes that’s right, it’s time to look at Hostile Intent by Micheal Walsh!
….Okay, yeah. You might wonder why I picked this book for my next Let’s Read. Well, I happened across a review of it on another blog and it sounded like the most out-there right-wing political screed dressed up as a thriller (Glenn Beck apparently described it as “pornography for republicans”). As such, I think it has many mysteries for us to delve into.
This Let’s Read will be a bit different from my previous ones. First of all, I’ve already read the book beforehand so we won’t be discovering it together, alas. I also won’t be giving quite as much attention to the minutiae of the plot, instead focusing more on the ultra-conservative themes present.
With that in mind, let’s start with chapter 1!
The book kicks off with a terrorist attack on a middle school in Edwardsville, a town so American that the students have names like “Annie Applegate”. I’m fairly certain you’re not allowed to name your daughter that unless you’re literally a bald eagle.
Chapter one gives us our first viewpoint character, Hope Gardner. Hope is a mother of two kids attending the soon to be in peril school, a twelve year old daughter and a ten year old son. The daughter isn’t as important to the story, although Walsh does take a moment to tell us about her boobs:
Emma was blond, green-eyed, and filling out with a rapidity that surprised Hope, even though she had gone through the same transformation herself when she was her daughter’s age. One moment a skinny kid, the next…And if she noticed, how much more quickly the boys noticed too.
I believe I’ve talked about exactly this scene several times before- our very own Pat Rothfuss gave us a textbook example in The Wise Man’s Fear- and it continues to annoy me every time it comes up. I mean, I might be wrong, but is this actually how a mother would react to her daughter going through puberty?
Anyway, it’s Hope’s son, Rory, who’s important as he’s going to be our viewpoint character for the terrorist siege. Rory is described by his mother as “different”, by which she means she thinks he has some kind of mild learning disability (he doesn’t actually). How Mr and Mrs Gardner react to this gives us our first look at a theme that Walsh will be coming back to repeatedly: masculinity and femininity. Hope is anxious for Rory and tries to be understanding and considerate, while her husband…. well, see for yourself:
[….] Jack was a no-nonsense, no-excuses kind of guy, dead set against it. His tech-consulting business did a lot of work with the military all over the Midwest, some of it highly classified, and as far as he was concerned, special-ed programs were for sissies and slackers, and his son was neither. The same went for “conditions” like attention deficit disorder and “diseases” with no physiological symptoms. “Nothing that can’t be cured by self-control or a good whack on the ass,” Jack would say.
Given some of the other opinions Walsh endorses over the course of the book I’m tempted to assume we’re meant to side with Jack here, but I’m not entirely sure that’s actually the case. Walsh’s gender dynamics seem to boil down to a version of complementarianism, or “separate but equal”. The idea that this isn’t just misogyny by another name is complete nonsense, but some people do seem to have convinced themselves that this is the case and I feel like that’s what Walsh is doing here- it’s Hope’s role as a woman to be nurturing and caring, and it’s Jack’s role as a man to be domineering and authoritative. It’s telling that in the world of Hostile Intent sympathetic characters tend to stick rigidly to this dichotomy, seemingly indicating that this simplistic, reductionist men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus viewpoint is supposed to be the natural way of things.
As Rory is going into the building Hope spots a dude she doesn’t recognize at the doors, but thinks nothing of it because he’s white and well dressed. This is a good segue into Walsh’s attitudes to race, which are exactly what you think they are. Rory plays a mental game called Cannibals and Missionaries, which seems to be a version of the old fox and chicken riddle. Except with scary black people.
It was a frequent subject of his doodles, but on this morning he tried very hard to visualize the scene: scary dark men with bones in their noses looking hungrily upon pale-faced creatures wearing what seemed to him to be full-length black dresses.
Don’t worry, we’re going to be meeting some real life “scary dark men” soon enough. Before that we get a bit of information on the principal of the school, who is of Lebanese descent. Will he turn out to be the Good Middle Eastern Person, in contrast with the dirty America-hating terrorists? You’ll have to wait a bit to find out.
The thing you have to understand about this book is that it’s actually a primer on right-wing talking points dressed up as a political thriller, which is why Walsh never misses a chance to expound on some republican bugbear, such as the beginning of the second chapter where Rory’s class has a moment of silence and he thinks about how prayer in schools is illegal. In fact this is such an important topic it gets brought up twice:
It wasn’t exactly a prayer, which the children all knew would be illegal, but neither was it a chance to sneak in a few more winks of sleep before the day began in earnest.
He closed his eyes in prayer. He didn’t care whether it was illegal. He didn’t care if they came to arrest him later.
This is of course a complete lie: praying in American public schools isn’t illegal and never has been. What is illegal is instructing students to pray or for teachers and other staff to endorse any religion over others. The people calling for a return to public school prayers don’t want religious freedom for students, they want their own personal religious views to be mandated by authority figures.
At the start of class Rory’s teacher introduces the well dressed white man from earlier as Charles, a new substitute teacher. According to Rory he has “an accent”. Shortly after this said teacher gets abruptly shot in the head by an unknown assailant as she’s leaving the room and Charles calmly locks the door and tells the kids to get under their desks, after which there’s a lot of shooting and screaming from the rest of the building. It’s notable that despite this being the beginning of a terrorist hostage scenario, it’s described with a lot of imagery reminiscent of school shootings (Sandy Hook in particular, although this is obviously a coincidence given the book came out in 2010). I wonder if this was an intentional attempt to conflate the two- Columbine gets name-dropped in the first chapter. I’ve noticed some American conservatives have a tendency to try and root all societal ills, terrorism and school massacres among them, in a breakdown in morality stemming from the same basic causes.
Once the shooting dies down Charles tells the kids to follow him out into the hallway, and we get more gender essentialism as all the girls cry and avoid looking at their dead teacher’s body while all the boys sneak peeks at it, the little scamps. It’s important to note how absolute this is- all of the girls cry, all of the boys are morbidly curious. There is one way and only one way for men and women to act, and (unless they’re befuddled, wrong-headed liberals) they’ll follow these rigid gender roles in every single instance.
When he opened his eyes, Charles was still looking at him. “It’s good to have you on the team, Rory.”
Charles held out his hand to Rory.
“You know what our team’s motto is?”
“Who Dares, Wins.”
Just in case you’re not versed in military trivia: this is the motto of the SAS, which confirms that Charles’ vague “accent” was a British one. You can also tell because he uses the word “lad”.