Friday, October 6, 2023

Book Review: All You Have to Do Is Call

By Jami Denison

On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, taking away the right to bodily autonomy that American women had relied on for fifty years. In this new environment, conservative states work to outlaw abortion and even birth control. The women who live there are forced to flee to Democratic states to have abortions, even in cases of severe fetal abnormalities. And miscarrying women living in these states risk their lives.

In this highly charged atmosphere, it’s a comfort to read All You Have to Do Is Call, Kerri Maher’s latest historical fiction novel. Set in early 1970s Chicago, the book is based on the real-life Jane network, a group of women who provided abortions and other reproductive healthcare services to women at a time when the procedure was still illegal in Illinois. It’s a timely reminder that when men seek to keep women in their place, other women will help them break free.

In this fictional version of the Jane network, the group’s founders are Siobhan and Veronica, who were inspired to form the group due to the shame surrounding Siobhan’s abortion. Both women do D&Cs and train others to do them. Siobhan, a painter, is divorced from Gabe; Veronica is pregnant with her second child. The other women featured in the book include Margaret, an assistant professor who is dating Gabe and starts to volunteer with Jane; and Patty, a Catholic housewife who is Veronica’s childhood best friend but disapproves of Veronica’s friend Siobhan. The women all have their own personal dramas as well: Siobhan has to share a child with Gabe; Veronica’s husband worries about her health; Margaret deals with sexism at work; Patty has a troubled marriage and younger sister. 

The details of the network are thoroughly and carefully explained, and show Maher’s commitment to research. The women put together an elaborate system to preserve anonymity and avoid detection from police, including pseudonyms and decoy locations. The organization is run as professionally as any corporation, with weekly status meetings, trainings, recruitment, and promotion. Maher also touches on the racial issues of the period, acknowledging that mostly Black women used a service provided by white women, and the impact of that.

I found the characters to be a little pat. They all had character arcs; despite the messiness of the book’s subject, everything was tidied up at the end. I wanted more. When women are prevented from having an abortion, they die. A pregnant woman is more likely to be murdered than a woman who isn’t pregnant, and homicide is a bigger cause of death for pregnant women than health-related issues. I would have liked a subplot about a woman who didn’t get to Jane in time. I wanted to see the worst happen. 

And despite all her careful attention to detail, there was a scene that was missing:  A detailed description of a D&C. Today’s underground women’s health network will probably focus on providing pills for a medical abortion. But in red states, miscarrying women are sent to hospital parking lots to see if they can pass their fetuses before going septic. In places like Florida, we need women like Siobhan and Veronica to save those women’s lives by performing D&Cs, because the doctors won’t do them until it might be too late. 

All You Have to Do Is Call ends with the passage of Roe v. Wade. Sadly, today’s Supreme Court seems more likely to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges—the case that found laws against same-sex marriages to be unconstitutional—than to do anything to help women. As the 2020s turns into the 1950s, women will again need to band together in groups like Jane to keep our hard-fought equality. Maher’s novel will be an inspiration to them, if not a guidebook. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Kerri Maher:

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