This stunning new novel from Diane McKinney-Whetstone, nationally bestselling author of Tumbling, begins in the chaotic backstreets of post–Civil War Philadelphia as a young black woman gives birth to a child fathered by her wealthy white employer.
In a city riven by racial tension, the father’s transgression is unforgivable. He has already arranged to take the baby, so it falls to Sylvia, the midwife’s teenage apprentice, to tell Meda that her child is dead—a lie that will define the course of both women’s lives. A devastated Meda dedicates herself to working in an orphanage and becomes a surrogate mother to two white boys; while Sylvia, fueled by her guilt, throws herself into her nursing studies and finds a post at the Lazaretto, the country’s first quarantine hospital, situated near the Delaware River, just south of Philadelphia.
The Lazaretto is a crucible of life and death; sick passengers and corpses are quarantined here, but this is also the place where immigrants take their first steps toward the American dream. The live-in staff are mostly black Philadelphians, and when two of them arrange to marry, the city’s black community prepares for a party on its grounds. But the celebration is plunged into chaos when gunshots ring out across the river.
As Sylvia races to save the victim, the fates of Meda’s beloved orphans also converge on the Lazaretto. Long ago, one “brother” committed an unthinkable act to protect the other, sparking a chain of events that now puts the Lazaretto on lockdown. Here conflicts escalate, lies collapse, and secrets begin to surface; like dead men rising, past sins cannot be contained.
Setting her book once again in her native city of Philadelphia, Pa., McKinney-Whetstone opens her sixth novel on the eve of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Meda, a beautiful young black woman, delivers the secret child of her employer, lawyer Tom Benin (who is white), at a medical office for clandestine services. After the baby is taken from her at birth, Sylvie, an apprentice to the midwife, lies and tells Meda her infant girl has died. Bereft and ungrounded, Meda seeks consolation by serving as a wet nurse to a pair of white newborn boys at a nearby orphanage, naming them Bram and Linc after the slain president she admired. Through a deal with Benin, Bram and Linc are able to stay with Meda on weekends and holidays. After cruelty and abuse from their employer forces the boys from Philadelphia, Meda and her family continue to treat them as their own. In the meantime, Sylvia has become a formidable and capable nurse at the city's island quarantine hospital, Lazaretto. When the boys return to the city in desperate circumstances, old paths eventually converge at the hospital. McKinney-Whetstone explores racial passing, class prejudice, the nature of family, and the longings of forbidden love, but the disjointed narratives often feel like two separate novels uncomfortably forced together. The emotional content is never allowed to rise above predictable contrivances of plot and unremarkable characterizations.
Customer ReviewsSee All
This novel had me mesmerized from the being to the end. I absolutely loved it. I did not want it to end. So many questions my mind is going crazy. This is a must read
but engaging and intriguing even as I hoped for a few more pages and moments to truly give Sylvie an
3.5 Stars rounded up
Opening at Lincoln’s assassination, we meet Meda, a young black woman in labor and the midwife’s assistant, Sylvia, a young white woman. When the child is taken from Meda by the father, and he orders that she be told it was stillborn, Sylvie is shocked, and haunted. This sets the scene for these two women to present this story with their alternating points of view.
What emerges is a series of studies and moments, interconnected by that night, for Meda and Sylvie. Small moments that show people living their lives, relaxing and toiling, mixed with other moments that graphically and poignantly presented struggles, prejudices and the many intrigues that were in play. I wanted more from Sylvie and Meda – their relationship as friends and more was certainly intriguing enough to warrant more words and pages, as well as a more satisfying conclusion to the more titillating moments.
What I’m left with is moments of prose and description that are vivid and often poignant, darker scenes that highlight the dramatic divisions in the society - the black community with lives supported by and ruled by the existence of the Lazaretto Quarantine hospital, removed from the power brokers or even choices of self-determination are limited. There’s a sense of ‘different place, same issues’ that emerges for many of the characters we meet: the time for jubilant celebrations about the promise of freedom have quieted, and the reality of the attitudes haven’t changed for most of the people in power.
A bit of unevenness in the plotting – moments of tension are easy to spot, and there were fewer moments where I truly wondered what would come next. What did work well was the insets of life, those quiet moments that allow characters to just be and exist. There were no moments of “it should have been” from the author, she’s presenting a story that gives readers the feeling of being in the moment, seeing the time and the people as they were with all of their scars and warts exposed, and allows an entry into a moment in time that will encourage thought. Not a perfect read, but engaging and intriguing even as I hoped for a few more pages and moments to truly give Sylvie and Meda the time they deserved.
I received an eArc copy of title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.