Publication date: Sept. 4, 2012
Category: medical historical fiction
Summary (from the publisher):
The year is 1796, and a trading ship arrives in the vibrant trading town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. But it’s a ghost ship–her entire crew has been decimated by a virulent fever which sweeps through the harbor town, and Newburyport’s residents start to fall ill and die with alarming haste. Something has to be done to stop the virus from spreading further. When physician Giles Wiggins places the port under quarantine, he earns the ire of his shipbuilder half-brother, the wealthy and powerful Enoch Sumner, and their eccentric mother, Miranda. Defiantly, Giles sets up a pest-house, where the afflicted might be cared for and separated from the rest of the populace in an attempt to contain the epidemic.
As the seaport descends into panic, religious fervor, and mob rule, bizarre occurrences ensue: the harbormaster’s family falls victim to the fever, except for his son, Leander Hatch, who is taken in at the Sumner mansion and a young woman, Marie Montpelier, is fished out of the Merrimac River barely clinging to life, causing Giles and Enoch—who is convinced she’s the expatriate daughter of the French king—to vie for her attentions–all while medical supplies are pillaged by a black marketer from Boston. As the epidemic grows, fear, greed, and unhinged obsession threaten the Sumner family—and the future of Newburyport itself.
Quarantine caught my attention as a new release in the genre of historical plague fiction. (I thought it might be a thriller but it isn’t; the story structure is more general fiction/literary fiction.)
John Smolens has written a worthy addition to this literary niche. Quarantine is peopled with rich characters, many of them related to the Sumner clan, a band of wealthy eccentrics who ooze unpleasantness in the most interesting ways. The main character Giles Wiggins is a family outlier: compassionate and thoughtful, a bit of a rugged intellectual. Wiggins plays the role of hero in the town’s story, serving the suffering, defying intolerance, and questioning the established medical wisdom. He is a true man of courage. The plot follows the intersecting paths of Dr. Wiggins, his mother, half-brother, illegitimate son, and his lover while the town of Newburyport grapples with a deadly fever. A ship owned by Giles’ brother arrives in port carrying victims of a fever which despite quarantine imposed by Giles spreads throughout the town. In keeping with the scientific knowledge of the time, the fever is not given a definite name but its origin in the West Indies and other hints suggest it is what we call yellow fever, which rampaged across America in the 1790s.
I enjoyed this book and had a hard time putting it down. While it’s not an action-packed cartoonish thriller, it has plenty of drama and suspense to keep the pages turning. My complaints were not major but include: too much early backstory put in awkward conversations, some unresolved plot lines (such as the strange death of the ship’s original captain), and a frequent failure to reach the level of emotional intensity that various scenes ought to evoke based on their content.
Quarantine accurately portrays the primitive state of medical knowledge and care at the time. The germ theory of disease was not generally accepted at that time. Three physicians in town reflect three points of view. One sees the disease as divine retribution for sin and believes nothing can be done and nothing should be done to help the victims. Another believes plagues are caused by distant geologic events like earthquakes which alter the atmosphere. Giles Wiggins is “uneducated;” that is, he learned the trade of doctoring as a sawbones working on ships during the Revolutionary War. Unencumbered by establishment doctrine, he correctly suspects the true cause of the disease isn’t morality or poor sanitation but transmission by mosquitoes. He also resists bloodletting as a therapy, marking him as a progressive in the reader’s eyes. (That yellow fever is transmitted by mosquito bites was not fully established until Army doctor Walter Reed led the landmark military medical expedition to Cuba around 1900.)
If you like this kind of plague story, see my recommendations below for related fiction and nonfiction. Two of the books, The Things that Keep Us Here and The Ghost Map, are reviewed at ScienceThrillers.com. Special mention to the young adult historical medical novel Fever 1793, which I haven’t read but my 13-year-old daughter thought was marvelous.