Sunday, May 07, 2017

Ship Fever (1996)

I'm not sure I've read many stories quite like Andrea Barrett's in this collection. They're grounded in 19th-century scientific currents, influenced directly by ongoing research and developments. They are always engaging and often moving. Gregor Mendel makes an abstracted appearance in the first story, for example, "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds," which wraps details of the friar scientist's biography into the story of a proud Czech woman whose grandfather was mentored by him during years of Mendel's obscurity, when he was fruitlessly studying bees and hawkweeds. In fact, a whole family drama is indirectly told, using techniques we understand better from late 20th-century fiction. The Czech woman's grandfather is accused of murder in an accidental death that ultimately destroys his life. All the stories in this collection, a National Book Award winner for fiction in 1996, have an economy and clarity of language that's a pleasure. The title story is nearly a hundred pages, involving the historical event of the typhus epidemic of 1847 at Grosse Isle, Canada, which stemmed from a huge ongoing emigration from Ireland. The immigrants arrived on ships with appalling conditions. Barrett paints a vivid picture of the dead and sick who travel in the holds of ship after arriving ship. She also documents the prejudice in Canada and the US militating against Irish immigrants. Into this intricately (and horrifically) imagined setting, Barrett inserts a story that much fits its Bronte sisters time frame. A man, a doctor, has been in love with a woman since they were both young children. But now she is married to another, and they have remained friends. The agony of his unrequited love is the next best thing to exquisite. He's off to battle the plague. I like the Victorian flavor of the romance—Canada was more or less officially Victorian at the time, I believe, and focusing on plague in the New World just adds even more layers. And there's still more here, stories full of science, and research, and historical context, alongside efficient heartrending tales. Or at least affecting. But come on, this has to be some kind of genre unto itself, yes? What's it called—historical fiction? History-of-science fiction? Industrial?

In case it's not at the library.

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