The Humanity Project: A Novel by Jean Thompson (New York:  Blue Rider Press, 2013. 337 pp)

Jean Thompson is the author of five novels, among them The Year We Left Home, Wide Blue Yonderand five short story collections, including Who Do You Love (a National Book Award Finalist). She lives in Urbana, Illinois.

Hope and Terror

Opening with a post apocalyptic “we” narrating, The Humanity Project opens with grim prospects. A voice describes the world wrought with terror, and yet with hope juxtaposing.

“We would cast off our old damaged selves, peel back our layers of failure and sadness. The past would no longer count, would no longer have a hold on us. We would be born again, like the church people said…We would be calmer, wiser, braver. We would face down our fears. We would do a better job of loving. We would be more worthy of love” (2).

The opening pages reveal what Thompson believes to be true of the human race. There is hope in us, but much destruction as well. After her prologue, the book opens rather simply. Sean is an out of work carpenter whose son, Connor, is concerned yet distanced from the financial situation plaguing his family. Connor is a good student, filled with a bright future. Sean, sadly, is about to lose the house by means of foreclosure. Searching for solace, he finds odd jobs that pay a mere fistful of dollars, as well as personal adds from craigslist.

As a result of meeting a woman from craigslist named Laurie, Sean’s life becomes no less fortunate. And, just as Sean’s story gets interesting, the story suddenly shifts.

Enter Mrs. Foster

Mrs. Foster asks her nurse, Christie, to head up her charity, whose aim is to benefit humanity (hence the name of the novel). She wants it to serve as a memorial to her husband. She desires to do a different kind of charity, to pay people for being good people.

“[T]his is going to be my new start. My next chapter in life. I even have a name picked out: The Humanity Project. And who better to be in charge but you? If you would just consider it. If you would be able to help me…It means I would like to give you rather a lot of money” (105).

Christie’s neighbor Linnea is the son of Art, who is the victim of a school shooting. She didn’t just witness the shooting, however, she witnessed her half-sister being murdered in the process. In the meantime, she has become a disciplinary nightmare.

“Because here she was stuck with her father, the Price of Boredom, a guy so squirrelly and anxious to please there must be some mistake about them being related. He was an intellectual. Linnea’s mother used to say, meaning it as a putdown…When Art was at work, she smoked in the bathroom with the exhaust fan on, then sprayed Tropical Citrus air spray everywhere, a joke. The stuff just screamed dope, that you’d been smoking dope. She figured Art knew what she was up to but was too chickenshit to come out and say anything” (108).

Economics and Behavior

Now much older, and after a past stint of thievery, Connor does odd jobs for none other than Mrs. Foster, the generous woman funding “The Humanity Project”. And so, somewhat contrived, the lives of all the characters intersect. Through the intersection of all these lives, Thompson desires to explore some deeper themes. She wants to explore how much our bad behavior, ranging from thievery to marijuana use, and even murder, is part of who we are. She proposes that bad behavior is a function of bad circumstances, and that at the same time, there is an innate goodness in the human soul that cannot be quenched.

I applaud Thompson for trying to explore some philosophically rooted ideas within The Humanity Project, as it produces a work of literature meaning more than just a mere story of right and wrong. A live story linking the effects of economics and behavior, the book ends as it begins: in a swirl of hope mixed with hate. Thompson doesn’t tie up any loose ends, but rather leaves the reader to try to make sense of this crazy world on their own, with the ending sentiment: “to be human is to be broken”.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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