A post–Civil War YA drama about a teenager who aspires to become a doctor, and his confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan.
In the 1870s, teenager Tom Slocum lives in a small town on the Illinois River and dreams of traveling west in search of adventure; he’s particularly drawn to the idea of getting the opportunity to fight “Indians.” One day, he has a chance encounter with a doctor, Robert Steele, who arrives in town by steamboat from Scotland. An untethered, seemingly wild dog threatens Rachel, the girl whom Tom pines for, and Dr. Steele calmly shoots the dog dead. The owner of the dog, Murphy, a local Klan leader, is enraged by the killing, and no less upset when Dr. Steele protects a former slave, Isaiah, from his aggression. Rachel’s leg is badly wounded from a fall from a horse, and Dr. Steele saves it from amputation by countering the infection with carbolic acid, a foreign technique that’s largely rejected in the United States. Tom eventually helps Dr. Steele operate on a man’s chronically infected arm, and he’s persuaded to pursue a career as a doctor. But when Tom’s father dies, the teenager is sent to an orphanage that discourages education and works him mercilessly. He eventually escapes and reunites with Dr. Steele, who takes him on as an apprentice. Meanwhile, Murphy and his Klansmen terrorize the town; he never forgave Dr. Steele for killing his dog, or for his defense of former slaves, and a climactic showdown seems inevitable.
Raffensperger (The Diary of Young Arthur Conan Doyle, 2017, etc.) ambitiously combines a lot of complex elements into a brief novel, including the transformation of the country in the wake of the Civil War, the continued legacy of vicious racism, the immorality of arranged marriage, and the halting progress of medical science in the United States. Dr. Steele emerges as an engagingly contradictory character—educated in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Paris, he’s a model of cosmopolitan refinement and moral progressiveness. However, he’s also tough, hardened by the experience of war, and still considers himself something of a country boy. The principal draw of the book is his influence on Tom. But although the story unfolds briskly, the cast that surrounds Tom and Dr. Steele lacks depth. Of course, it isn’t easy to convert the febrile racism of the evil Murphy into a character with substance, but nevertheless, he’s depicted merely as a depthless scoundrel. Part of what makes the post–Civil War years such a captivating period of study are its endlessly complex moral contours, but Raffensperger only pits good vs. evil—moral enlightenment versus the defense of prejudice. Also, even though this is a relatively short novel, there are still too many gratuitous detours away from the central storyline; for example, one chapter is devoted to Dr. Steele’s reminiscences of romantic companionship in New Orleans—a subplot that could have been excised without any narrative cost.
Despite tackling several serious themes, oversimplification takes the bite out of this historical drama.