BOOK REVIEW: The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

Published by ECW Press in 2018.

It’s exactly like in the Hippolytus. Any overt display of female agency automatically calls down violence.
— Sarah Henstra, The Red Word

In her searing novel about rape culture and polarized university campuses, Sarah Henstra introduces us to a cast of characters who, as well-educated and privileged young adults, so steadfastly believe in their ideologies they are willing to risk everything to act on them.

Set at an unnamed Ivy League university in the 1990s, The Red Word follows sophomore student Karen Huls who, in a desperate search for a place to live, moves in to a house of radical feminists. Karen, a free-spirited tree planter, hasn’t spent much time thinking about feminism or gender relations and despite the influence of her new roommates continues a relationship with a member of a fraternity notorious for its mistreatment of women. As the year progresses, her eyes are opened not only to the actions of the fraternity members, but to the single-minded determination of her housemates to bring down the campus Greek system.

As the battle between the two sides intensifies, Karen is torn between her boyfriend, as well as one of his frat brothers with whom she is in love, and her newfound understanding of what it means to be a woman on a university campus. She watches with a confusing combination of horror and apathy as collateral damages accumulate in the all-out war.

Central to The Red Word is the idea that the personal is political, a lens through which Karen’s roommates scrutinize each of her choices. By dating a member of an organization that revels in the mistreatment of women, has Karen made herself complicit in campus rape culture? By moving in to a house of radical feminists has she become inherently anti-man? Has apathy become the same as taking a stance, and is it worse to be apathetic than it is to be involved?

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The personal is political.

As the battle between fraternity and feminism rages on, Karen’s persona – that of a relaxed, laid back “cool girl” – starts to slip. Boys she considered friends turn on her, both because of her own actions and affiliations and simply by virtue of being a girl in an argument that has been simplistically categorized as man vs. woman.

Henstra masterfully depicts the fierce binarism of campus politics. Her characters, while flawed and misled on many occasions, are undeniably intelligent and motivated, and so deeply convinced of their own correctness – in the way that only young, educated, privileged people can be - that they overlook the new problems they’ve created by trying to prove their point. They speak to one another in phrases repeated verbatim from women’s studies and Greek mythology lectures, leaving the reader certain of their conviction, but unclear on whether or not they understand what they’re really saying.  

Though set almost three decades ago, The Red Word is timely. It depicts college campuses at their best and worst, as places of higher learning and open intellectual horizons, but also as cesspools of radical and dangerous thought, institutions that protect and foster the most corrosive and frightening elements of masculinity, and that force young women to take their safety into their own hands, sometimes at a terrible cost.

The Red Word is hard to read at times, depicting graphic and upsetting interactions between characters and detailing the harrowing experiences of women on campus.  But Henstra pierces through the dark tones of the novel with beautiful writing and perfectly created atmosphere. This book is a must-read.  

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