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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Speakers of the Dead: The Costs of Medical Progress

Back in the 1970's I read a historical novel about Dr. John Hunter, an 18th century Scottish physician who is regarded as a medical pioneer.   I can't recall the title or author and couldn't find it on the internet, but that book was the one in which I discovered that doctors once  stole corpses from cemeteries in order to learn about human anatomy.   More recently,  I read The Anatomy of Deception by Lawrence Goldstone, a historical mystery which took place in late 19th century Philadelphia only a few years after autopsies became legal.

The subject of this review, Speakers of the Dead by J. Aaron Sanders, is a 2016 historical mystery that takes place in New York in 1843 when resistance to medical dissection of human corpses was still extremely high in the United States.  So medical schools continued to break the law in order to teach students anatomy.


By choosing to center his story on a fictional medical school for women which didn't exist in New York at the time,  Sanders has epitomized the anxieties of an era.  Respectable women were regarded as The Angel of the House  during this period.  The Wikipedia article to which I've linked refers to a popular poem that was published more than a decade later, but it crystallized the attitudes that had been part of the Anglo-American zeitgeist for some time.  Women were expected to swoon if anyone so much as mentioned the darker aspects of life. According to Victorian ideology, women were supposed to be too delicate to be exposed to such things.  Men existed to shield women from reality.   This means that women who cut up corpses were total iconoclasts.  I had no difficulty in believing  that they in particular would be subjected to mass outrage as they were in this novel.   They hadn't merely stepped outside women's sphere, they had shattered it and left the wreckage behind them.  There was a women's medical school in neighboring Pennsylvania a few years later, so Sanders was tweaking the chronology a bit.  He confesses to altering chronology in his author's note. This didn't bother me because he set up such an interesting social conflict.

The real first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, was one of the medical students in Speakers of the Dead.  Her name was Elizabeth Blackwell, and she had an unusual background.  Sanders has Blackwell speak about her father as an abolitionist, but my research revealed a man who was generally at odds with society, and he raised a set of children who were dissidents.   Elizabeth Blackwell's sister followed her into medicine, and her brother Henry Browne Blackwell became a women's suffrage supporter who married the women's suffrage activist Lucy Stone.  The Wikipedia article dealing with him includes the protest against the marriage laws that they read aloud during their wedding ceremony.

I haven't yet mentioned the amazing protagonist of this book.  It's Walt Whitman.  Other reviewers say that this isn't the Walt Whitman that they knew.  I guess they didn't actually read all his poems.  I did, and I consider him one of the most brilliant and unconventional poets in the English language.  So it didn't surprise me that he was taking on the establishment of his day as a young journalist.

Some mystery readers dislike historical personages as detectives because they don't think it likely that they'd be investigating crimes.  Newspapers that report crimes are also expected to uncover facts about them.  So I would think they'd have no problem with Walt Whitman solving cases during the journalistic phase in his life.

Actually, Speakers of the Dead wasn't so much of a whodunit.  Walt's challenge was to convince the authorities to arrest the man he knew to be the perpetrator.  This turned out to be a very risky undertaking.   Even though I knew that Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Blackwell  would survive the events of this novel, I still found it quite suspenseful.

I definitely wouldn't mind reading more Walt Whitman mysteries.  This may be J. Aaron Sanders' first novel, but it already shows evidence that his future work may be astonishing.



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