Martha Moody’s dystopian vision of Dayton in “Sharp and Dangerous Virtues”
By Tim Walker
Imagine: the year is 2047. In Dayton, Ohio, in a future not so far away, the United States has had to adapt in order to survive.
After hundreds of years reigning as a global superpower, the U.S. is still recognizable, but times have changed. A series of wars, global climate shifts and an overloaded health care system have caused the economy to collapse, forcing Americans to endure years of food shortages, disease and poverty, years referred to as the Short Times. In a radical response to the situation, President Brandee Cooper and the U.S. government created an area now called The Grid, a twenty-five million acre rectangular-shaped agricultural zone that stretches across the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. The major cities inside the Grid – Toledo, Ft. Wayne and Chicago – were spared, but all of the small towns were leveled and the citizens forcefully relocated. The area is now farmed and occupied by Gridians, clannish people who work the land and distrust outsiders.
Food is plentiful again thanks to The Grid, but a multi-national army known as The Alliance, made up of South American, African and Canadian forces, has the United States under siege. The Alliance, led by a charismatic Gambian general known as Nanonene, has already occupied Cleveland, and now has its sights set on seizing The Grid.
Dayton, Ohio also still exists – towns like Tipp City, Lima and St. Henry were all destroyed, as the Grid’s southern border lies just to the north of Dayton – but the streets of Dayton have changed. Packs of feral dogs roam the streets. Poverty is evident.
It is into this vividly-imagined world that Martha Moody places her novel’s characters, all of whom have endured difficult times and are now trying to survive and negotiate their various conflicts. Tuuro is a black church custodian in flight after being wrongfully accused of murdering a young child. Chad and Sharis are a married couple with two sons who are holding out for a normal life in a decaying suburb their friends all seem to be abandoning. Lila is Dayton’s aging Commissioner of Water, and dreams of being part of the “pure” existence of the Gridians. Charles and Diana are trying to preserve the nature center in which they’ve been trapped.
“Sharp and Dangerous Virtues” is an excellent novel, and definitely a departure for writer Martha Moody who, at 57, is best known as a writer of bestselling literary “chick lit.” Moody’s previous novels, which together have sold close to a million copies, include “Best Friends,” which was a 2001 Washington Post national bestseller, “The Office of Desire,” one of Kirkus Reviews “Best Books of the Year” for 2007 and “Sometimes Mine,” published in 2009.
Packed with local references and Dayton-area details, the novel is obviously the work of someone very familiar with our city and its people. Martha Moody has stated in interviews that her inspiration for the book came from various sources, one of which was the often-repeated drive between Dayton and Lake Erie, where her family vacations, and from her having worked in a satellite medical office.
The setting of “Sharp and Dangerous Virtues,” in a dystopian near-future world ravaged by strife, may put off potential readers as being too apocalyptic or too science-fictional for their tastes. That would be a mistake. Moody’s obvious skill in handling the setting, her vivid detailing of her characters lives and struggles in a world not so different from our own, makes for an exciting and interesting experience. Settling into the book, the reader realizes early on that they’re in the hands of a skilled writer, someone who knows and understands people and who has something interesting and unique to say about the human condition.
Dayton writer Martha Moody was born and raised in Ohio. She graduated from Oberlin College and received her M.D. from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where she also completely her residency training in internal medicine. Moody was a private practice internist for 15 years in the area. She then volunteered her services in a clinic for the working poor for ten years before retiring from medicine to write full time. In March 2011, in recognition of her philanthropy, Moody was honored as a “YWCA 2011 Woman of Influence.” She lives in Dayton, Ohio with her husband and their four sons.
Martha Moody’s “Sharp and Dangerous Virtues” is available in hardcover from Ohio University’s Swallow Press. For more information, go to www.ohioswallow.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@daytoncitypaper.com