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How a novel became a defining issue in a key gubernatorial race

How did a Pulitzer Prize winning Toni Morrison novel become a defining issue of Virginia's gubernatorial campaign? Well, it's an odd story.

Over the course of several months, the defining issue of Virginia's closely watched gubernatorial race has changed more than once. The contest was going to hinge on the candidates' ability to address the pandemic. Or maybe the economy. Or reproductive rights. Perhaps it would come down to a referendum on President Joe Biden. Or his predecessor.

The race was not supposed to be defined by a novel from the 1980s. And yet, as NBC News noted yesterday, here we are.

One of the great American novels that recounts the horrors of slavery has erupted as a flashpoint in the closing days of Virginia's race for governor, with Democrat Terry McAuliffe and his allies accusing Republican Glenn Youngkin of "racist" campaigning. Toni Morrison's "Beloved" is staple of high school English programs, but a parent who advocated it be banned from Virginia schools appeared in a new Youngkin ad released Monday.

The impetus for the new attack ad was a comment McAuliffe made in a debate last month: "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." In context, it didn't seem especially controversial: The idea that a small group of extremist parents, for example, should exercise veto power over what students learn about science, civics, history, and art is a recipe for educational chaos.

But the former governor's critics nevertheless pounced. McAuliffe, the argument went, is trying to marginalize parents. For Youngkin, a new, defining issue had arrived: The Republican would empower parents, not educators, to shape school curricula, while his Democratic rival would not.

This week, this pitch was crystalized in a commercial. "What's it like to have Terry McAuliffe block you from having a say in your child's education?" Youngkin asked in a tweet promoting the ad. "This mom knows — she lived through it."

Viewers were introduced to a woman named Laura Murphy who says her son was traumatized by offensive "reading material" he'd been assigned in school. She lobbied in support of measures that would've required schools to notify parents about "explicit" assignments and require teachers to make alternative arrangements in response to parental objections.

McAuliffe, Murphy explained in the ad, vetoed these efforts.

But those who see the commercial aren't getting the whole story. Murphy, a Republican donor, was describing a 2013 incident in which Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning novel had been assigned in her son's Advanced Placement English course for high school seniors. There's no denying the fact that the fictional work about slavery is challenging and upsetting, but that's the point: In an AP English class, students should expect to read difficult content.

As for how this relates to the final week of Virginia's gubernatorial campaign, voters are apparently supposed to believe that a vote for Youngkin is a vote for empowering GOP activists to cancel literary classics, written by Nobel laureates, in English classes.

Polls show a race that is effectively tied. Election Day in the commonwealth is just six days away.