4.29.2013

Quarantine, by John Smolens

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, to review on behalf of the publisher.

Quarantine
Oh, how I love to read good historical fiction! I love good dialog in which the characters don't drop anachronism. I love it when authors put in the time to do the research to find out how people actually lived and thought during the time they chose for their setting. And I got all of those things from John Smolens' Quarantine. In the afterword, Smolens writes about the summer he spent in Newburyport, gutting a house for renovations. The house had been built during the 1790s and some of the wood was original, down to the carpenters' notes on the backside. He wrote that he felt a connection to the past by pulling out original square-headed nails and reading those notes. I think Smolens brought some of that connection to Quarantine.

The novel opens with a ship arriving from the West Indies in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1796. The town doctor, Giles Wiggins--actually a sawbones who got all his training during the American Revolution--is called out to the ship because some of the crew men are deathly ill with something that I think might be Typhoid fever*. Before the doctor and the harbormaster can put the ship under quarantine, boats are spotted heading landward. Predictably, disease breaks out, starting with the taverns and brothels in the harbor. Dr. Wiggins and the other doctors in the area (who are frighteningly trained in the latest medical science of their day**) set up a pest-house to deal with the epidemic. 

Unfortunately for the doctors and their volunteers, someone has organized a highly successful robbery of all three apothecaries' supplies at the same time. A few days after the robberies, Dr. Wiggins receives a note that lets him know that the supplies can be had back--for a price. So along with trying to save as many people as he can, Wiggins has to figure out how to get the medicine back.

Along with Dr. Wiggins' story, we get the story of young Leander Hatch. Leander and Wiggins are among the few decent people in this town. After losing his family to fever and fire, Leander takes a job as stable hand at the failing mansion owned by Enoch Sumner and his mother. Enoch is like something out of a Hogarth series. Even as Leander starts to rebuild his life and helps Dr. Wiggins to find out what happened to the medicine, he provides sweet notes to the story as he falls in love with Cedella the housemaid.

I really enjoyed Quarantine, even though there's a lot of hardship in this book, because it was so well written and well researched. This is a very good book.

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* I was afraid to use WebMD in case men in spacesuits from the CDC swoop down on me. I used Wikipedia.

** One of the doctors subscribes to the theory that volcanic eruptions cause disease, as posited by Noah Webster. His articles on the subject went into the 1800 book A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases With the Principal Phenomena of the Physical World Which Precede and Accompany Them, and Observations Deduced from the Facts Stated.

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