In Kerns’ (Standard of Care, 2007) latest novel, a student learns much more than obstetrics during a baptism by fire on Chicago’s West Side in the fateful spring of 1968.
Every med student in Northwestern University’s program must spend two weeks at the Chicago Maternity Center, whose mission is to serve a deeply poor, predominantly African-American area of the city, overseeing pregnancies and delivering babies. The students are pushed to their physical limits, and some are scared about working in a potentially threatening neighborhood—and about their own competence as doctors. Nick Weissman, a Jewish-American student, is flush with idealism and liberal political views; he’s tested while earning the trust of Blossom Amos, a sullen, withdrawn 14-year-old African-American girl pregnant with twins. A parallel storyline follows the notorious James Earl Ray, who escapes from a Missouri prison, travels all across the South and eventually to Memphis—the site of his assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which sets off horrific riots in Chicago and elsewhere. In this chaos, Nick and the others are about to evacuate for their own safety. Then comes word that Blossom is in labor, and Nick makes a fateful decision to help her, against all odds. Kerns is an engaging writer who gives the story such momentum that it fairly gallops to its conclusion. He also effectively draws on aspects of his own life, including two weeks that he spent working at the Chicago Maternity Center in real life; all of the novel’s gritty details ring as true as they should. Some elements are fictional, though, such as the Abrafo, which is said to be the most terrifying of the local African-American gangs. Also, Nick and James Earl Ray never meet—but the fact that they serve as vectors of good and evil makes for an inspired plot device.
A highly recommended historical tale that will make readers hope that the good doctor has more novels in him.