It's the summer of 1976, and teenage Arab refugee Rama Chandra moves with his family to Sunbeam Township, a Michigan suburb. With Independence Day coming up, the locals are busy preparing for the Bicentennial, celebrating America's 200th birthday. At the town high school he meets Bess Hawkins, an outspoken feminist. She's routinely bullied and badgered by other students because of her views. Rama suspects she's also been beaten by her uncle, Jason Trask, Bess' legal guardian. Rama, who was tortured in the Middle East, has sympathy for the poor girl. To protect her, he breaks into the Trask mansion, tosses Bess over his shoulder and carries her off into the night. He keeps her safe and secure at his countryside estate, where love blossoms between them. When Jason learns where Bess is hiding, a confrontation ensues between Rama, Bess and the entire town. In time everyone learns a lesson on the true meaning of freedom. (Illustration by the late Gege Pruchniewski, who did the original drawings for the magazine edition in 2000.)
"Liberation" is very much a seventies style romance, and not just because it takes place during that troubled decade. Much of my inspration came from seventies paperback romances, with their quarreling couples who are transformed by the power of love. But I also enfused the book with the energy level of 1940s "pulp" romances, that mixed love with high adventure. The wild climax, on board a yacht fleeing madly across Lake Michigan, is in the grand tradition of the older romantic thrillers.
Scene from Chapters 5:
They swam around each other across the lagoon. Bess often stopped long enough for Rama to catch up, then dodged away just as he made a grab for her. When she was sure he’d run out of steam, Bess walked up on shore, laughing while she shook water off her arms and legs. Then she let out a whoop as she got seized from behind, and was lifted right off her feet. Next thing she knew, Rama plopped her butt on top of his right shoulder, so she was sitting on him. With his forearm draped over her thighs, Rama started walking toward the horse.
“Be careful!” she cackled, wiggling around till she was well balanced. “I’m still slippery!”
“Quit squawking!” Rama snapped. “In the water you may be my equal, but on land I’m in charge! And once you’re in my arms, you’re mine to command!”
“I don’t care!” she said, stretching out her arms. “Look at me now! I’m taller than anybody! I’m the tallest girl in the whole wide world!”
“I thought you were afraid of heights.”
“Not anymore! I’ve overcome my fear! I can touch the clouds!”
Arriving at the horse, Rama passed Bess over so she was seated on the saddle. “Then you shouldn’t mind going on a guided tour.” Untying the animal, he walked away from the lagoon, leading Sultan by the bridle.
Bess clutched at the saddle horn. “You gonna walk around like that?”
“Don’t worry,” said the lad, pointing to the bottom of one foot. “Calluses are thicker than shoes!”
They were laughing together when suddenly Rama halted, eyes popping out of his head. Puzzled as to why he looked so dumbfounded, Bess glanced in the direction he was staring, and let out a gasp herself.
Directly in front of them stood a wrinkled, beak-nosed old woman in a long black dress, her angry face glaring out of a hood that concealed her hair. There was no mixed blood in her—she was full-fledged Arab. A large silver crucifix hung on her neck, and she leaned on a walking cane, gripping it with a claw-like hand.
One word escaped Rama’s lips. “Grandmother!”
Scene from Chapter 7:
By the lagoon, the old Arab woman just kept staring at her grandson. Still seated on Sultan, Bess looked down and saw that Rama was transfixed by the elderly matron's fierce countenance.
At last he spoke. "G-Grandmother, I don't understand. You weren't supposed to visit for another month--"
Hobbling on her cane, she came toward him, brandishing a folded newspaper in her right hand. "It is you who has some explaining to do! What is the meaning of this insane article?"
Confused, Rama helped Bess off the horse. "What article?"
As if Bess wasn't there, the old woman snapped open the paper and shoved it in the lad's hands. "See for yourself!"
"Oh no..." Rama showed Bess the headline--Exiled Arab Prince seeks his Princess in America.
Bess whistled. "Lord have mercy on us!"
"This is Loretta's work!" sputtered Rama. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think she would--"
"You never think at all!" Snatching the paper away, his grandmother rolled it up. "Rama, I have endured your silly pranks for years, but this time you've gone too far! You, an Arab prince? That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen! You've turned our family into a laughingstock!" She swatted the paper against his arm. "Everyone in Detroit makes jokes about my idiot grandson!"
"It wasn't his fault ma’am," Bess said timidly. This lady's voice could shatter glass. To Bess, she was more frightening than her uncle!
"And who are you?" the old woman shouted, making Bess flinch.
"I...er...I'm..." Gulping, she pointed to the paper. "I'm the 'princess' in the story..."
Rama nervously tried to straighten things out. "Darling, this is my grandmother, Fatima Haroon. Grandmother, this is Bess Hawkins, my..." He looked at Bess, then at the old woman. "My fiancé. The girl I intend to marry."
"Her? She is a baby!"
"She is sixteen years of age," Rama replied confidently. "In the old country, she would already be at a marriageable age--"
"You're not in the old country anymore!" Fatima snapped, cutting him down to size. "And even there, you never raised your hand to a woman!"
The lad was bewildered. "What do you mean?"
Leaning both hands on the cane, Fatima looked at him scornfully. "I saw what you did, Rama. Were you so preoccupied you did not see my limousine pull through the gate? I was watching when you rode off to the woods with this poor child. Even my driver saw you beating her!"
"You've got it all wrong," Bess interjected. "That was a spanking, not a beating. It was all in fun. Besides, it was my idea."
"Was it indeed?" Fatima jabbed a finger on the girl's shoulder. "You and I must talk. As for you--" She smacked Rama's chest with the newspaper, forcing him to take it. "Get that horse to its stable and start cleaning the barn! It's filthy! I'll deal with you later!"
Watching Rama take orders from a woman made Bess feel elated. She grinned at his perplexed expression. "Well, now I see who's the real boss around here!"
"Come with me!" Yanking at the girl's wrist, Fatima nearly pulled Bess off her feet, leading her away.
Bess frowned. It was a miracle her wrist wasn't twisted out of shape, the way people kept jerking her around. And this old codger was strong for a grandmother!
She wasn't very fast, however, as she took Bess down the pathway that led through the woods. Bess looked back to see poor Rama reading that awful article and shaking his head dejectedly.
Manish and Sita were waiting anxiously in the garden by the time Fatima and Bess got to them.
"Sita!" barked the old woman, letting Bess go. "Take this girl and see to it she's properly dressed! I expect her in the drawing room by the end of the hour. Manish, come with me!"
Once Manish and Fatima were out of earshot, Sita showered Bess with apologies. "Oh princess, I'm so sorry this happened! Grandmother showed up out of nowhere! I didn't see her car until it was too late. Manish and I tried to stall her, but she insisted on looking for you—”
"Never mind that now! Let's hightail it to the kitchen, get some snack prepared for her."
"But Grandmother said you were to get dressed--"
"There's plenty of time for that. After all she's seen, I gotta make a good first impression. C'mon girl, let's scoot!"
They hastened through a side door that opened to the kitchen. Bess couldn't believe the extraordinary mess the room was in. Pots and pans, canned foods, bags of flour and meal, scattered willy-nilly all over the place. The sink was heaped with dirty dishes, and even the black iron stove had skillets and utensils piled on its top.
"My land, did you live this way in the old country?" she exclaimed.
Sita was embarrassed. "It's been hard for me to arrange things, we've been so busy--"
"Do we have have any coffee? Does your grandmother drink coffee?"
"Coffee? There's a bag here somewhere--but we usually drink tea--"
"Then get some tea goin'! Time's a wastin'!"
Spotting a metal teakettle sitting on a table, Bess rushed over to get it. For the first time she noticed there was someone else in the room. An Arab man in a chauffeur's uniform sat at the table smoking a cigarette. He was startled to see a teenage girl in a bikini run past him.
"Oh...hello..." Bess said, grabbing the kettle and hurrying to the sink. Wide-eyed and disturbed, the man babbled something in a foreign language, and Sita had to pacify him with a quick explanation.
Filling the kettle with water, Bess was annoyed by the gaggle of voices behind her. "Sita, will you quit chitter-chattering and fire up the stove's pilot light! I don't want to blow the place sky high getting this water ready!"
"One moment!" Sita found some matches and got the aging stove ready for action. When Bess came over with the teapot, Sita eyed her curiously. "Princess, did you and Rama make any--"
"No, we didn't make any babies, for God's sake!" Bess slammed the kettle down on a burner. Seeing the chauffeur's jittery reaction to her hysterics, Bess settled down. "Sorry, Sita. Didn't mean to loose my cool. Everything's happening so quickly--"
More amused than offended, Sita patted Bess on the arm. "Think nothing of it, princess. It's only right I should do what you tell me. After all, once you're Rama's wife, you'll be in charge of the entire household."
"Guess I will, won't I?" Bess found she rather liked that concept; but there was no time to daydream about it. "Listen, brew some tea fast as you can while I get dressed. Then dig through this mess for cups, sugar and cream. And a snack! Cookies, anything you can find. Put 'em all on a platter--if you can locate one. I'll be back to help in a jiffy."