McKinney-Whetstone's sixth novel (Trading Dreams at Midnight, 2008, etc.) explores a fateful shooting that rocks the close-knit African-American community surrounding the Lazaretto Hospital in post–Civil War Philadelphia.
On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, a black maid named Meda is rushed to the office of local midwife Dr. Miss by Tom Benin, her white boss and father of her child. It's the first birth that Sylvia, the assisting nurse-in-training, has attended. So when Benin tells Dr. Miss that he'll be taking the baby and Meda must be told the baby has died, Sylvia is understandably shaken. The question of who can retain control over his or her own body becomes central to the narrative. As one of the few doctors serving blacks in 1865, Dr. Miss was able to provide much-needed health care for the community as well as training for aspiring black nurses like Sylvia; however, the hierarchy of racial power dynamics still permeated every aspect of their work. In haunting, vivid language, Meda's breasts overflow with milk as she mourns the newborn she was never able to hold in her arms. Language sings throughout the whole of McKinney-Whetstone’s writing—from the lilt of her characters’ colloquial speech to her poetic, visceral descriptions. Meda's and Sylvia’s lives continue to intertwine through their roles as surrogate mothers—Meda to Lincoln and Abraham, two orphaned boys Benin sends her to look after; Sylvia to her cousin Vergie. But after Lincoln and Abraham are assaulted by a powerful man and forced to flee Philadelphia, all these lives intersect when a quarantine shuts down Lazaretto Hospital and decades-old secrets finally come to light.
A sophisticated and compelling novel that comes alive through a rich cavalcade of vibrant characters and a suspenseful plot.