Affecting characters and dramatic storytelling overcome an occasionally argot-laden plot.

1918

A U.S. physician with a specialty in infectious diseases fights against the 1918 influenza pandemic in Cornish’s debut work of historical fiction.

Maj. Edward Noble, overseeing American soldiers during “The War,” is ordered back to Boston to ensure diseases don’t continue to spike the mortality rate. He soon learns of the high death rate from influenza, which only increases when the virus crops up in other countries and then returns to the States as a much deadlier strain. Dwindling hospital staff and medical supplies are just part of Noble’s troubles. Warning the public of a pandemic isn’t easy when certain powerful people refuse to accept that influenza is a disease. Cornish’s novel has surprisingly few characters considering its scope; it clocks in at more than 750 pages. But keeping the cast manageable proves to be a great asset; it still shows the flu’s reach while concentrating on the sympathetic Noble; his wife, Lilly; and their five children. The doctor faces plenty of obstacles professionally—alerting people about the virus incites the surgeon general, who asserts that influenza is not a concern—as well as at home, where none of his loved ones are immune to the disease. Supporting characters shine, including Col. Victor Vaughn, a good friend to Noble’s late father; Akeema, the nanny treated as family; and Cmdr. Richard Cunard, Noble’s nemesis since Lilly chose Noble instead of him back at Boston University. Cornish loads his story with medical jargon. Most of it can be deciphered via context, like “roentgenograms,” which are X-ray photographs. But the surplus of terminology can be a deterrent: The dramatic punch of caring for a sickly family member is softened by cold clinical descriptions, both in the dialogue between Noble and Lilly and in the repetition and recording of vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, etc.). Regardless, Noble is an appealing, knowledgeable focal point in this fictionalized rendering of the great influenza pandemic.

Affecting characters and dramatic storytelling overcome an occasionally argot-laden plot.

Pub Date: June 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-1482687156

Page Count: 774

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2014

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A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

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THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK

One of Kentucky’s last living “Blue People” works as a traveling librarian in 1930s Appalachia.

Cussy Mary Carter is a 19-year-old from Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. She was born with a rare genetic condition, and her skin has always been tinged an allover deep blue. Cussy lives with her widowed father, a coal miner who relentlessly attempts to marry her off. Unfortunately, with blue skin and questionable genetics, Cussy is a tough sell. Cussy would rather keep her job as a pack-horse librarian than keep house for a husband anyway. As part of the new governmental program aimed at bringing reading material to isolated rural Kentuckians, Cussy rides a mule over treacherous terrain, delivering books and periodicals to people of limited means. Cussy’s patrons refer to her as “Bluet” or “Book Woman,” and she delights in bringing them books as well as messages, medicine, and advice. When a local pastor takes a nefarious interest in Cussy, claiming that God has sent him to rid society of her “blue demons,” efforts to defend herself leave Cussy at risk of arrest, or worse. The local doctor agrees to protect Cussy in exchange for her submission to medical testing. As Doc finds answers about Cussy’s condition, she begins to re-examine what it means to be a Blue and what life after a cure might look like. Although the novel gets off to a slow start, once Cussy begins traveling to the city for medical testing, the stakes get higher, as does the suspense of the story. Cussy's first-person narrative voice is engaging, laced with a thick Kentucky accent and colloquialisms of Depression-era Appalachia. Through the bigotry and discrimination Cussy suffers as a result of her skin color, the author artfully depicts the insidious behavior that can result when a society’s members feel threatened by things they don't understand. With a focus on the personal joy and broadened horizons that can result from access to reading material, this well-researched tale serves as a solid history lesson on 1930s Kentucky.

A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4926-7152-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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