Maureen McHugh’s 1992 China Mountain Zhang is foremost a personal novel of people confronting realities of life and dealing with them as humans do. It is also set against a future that sees the West, predominantly the US, go through a Second Depression. The Chinese jumping into the gap to take over the US culturally, linguistically, and economically the same way the US has other countries, the political backdrop is one rich with potential that is only partially explored in the novel. Far heavier ideologically, McHugh’s 1992 novella Protection is set in the same US, but foregrounds the practical realities of socialism vs. capitalism, the personal stories coming in a close second.
Protection is the story of Janee, a tough-skinned, rebellious young woman who has been convicted of larceny and assault, and sentenced to 10 years at the labor camp Protection in Kansas. Uneducated, she has trouble adapting to life at the camp, particularly its group sessions in which the prisoners discuss their crimes in the outside world and publicly confess what they did wrong. Though forcing herself upon a weak ‘political’ named Paul for warmth in the cold bunkrooms and companionship in the vast sewing room where they spend their workdays, she finds herself flustered in conversation regarding the political ideals behind society outside. The blue sky she comes to, however, is not what the reader expects.
Despite the similarities, Protection works less in parallel and more in dialogue with such works as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Rather than overtly exemplifying the negative qualities of a political system through character and scene, McHugh prefers a challenge more subtle. Denisovich begins his story standing firmly on one political side, and given his day-to-day experience at the labor camp, does not see it altered at the end. Janee, however, does not hold any ideological claim at the outset. Her lack of education and rebelliousness toward everything offer a more ‘neutral’ outlook despite that she also is a prisoner. Thus it is through the educational group sessions, daily work in the labor camp, and late-night discussions with Paul that McHugh exposits the tension of the political ideologies. The conclusion likewise lacking the clear viewpoint of Denisovich, McHugh should be given credit for treating socialism in more discursive fashion.
Another very interesting aspect of the novella is the relationship between the work performed at Protection and an ordinary factory. Though never directly discussed, the parallel/juxtaposition remains exposed for comment, especially considering the denouement of Janee’s story. While it’s obvious that personal freedom is a major game-changer, the other aspects of life are left open for discussion in interesting fashion.
In the end, Protection is a strong novella that investigates life in a politically motivated labor camp through the eyes of an uneducated criminal. McHugh doing a good job with character, the reader is with Janee every step she takes adapting to life in the prison, protecting the man she chooses for companionship, and learning the political details and history of the society she was taken from. Though nothing new in general terms (anti-socialist works have and continue to be written), the novella is, however, relatively unique for its practical vs. theoretical presentation. Classically a tragedy, readers may still have to squint to see how, and hopefully appreciate the subtlety after realization.