A war-weary doctor strives for love and redemption in a disease-ridden mill town in 1860s Massachusetts in Hirschhorn’s (A Price of Healers, 1983, etc.) historical novel.
John Spencer saw the horrors of war as a doctor with the Union Army. He arrives in Cromwell, Massachusetts, in 1865 with a letter of introduction to the town physician, Dr. Shaw Billings, who takes him under his wing, and he soon begins to build his own practice. Spencer marries Kathleen O’Connell, the daughter of a funeral-home owner, and while she’s pregnant with their first child, he encounters Elizabeth, daughter of Zebediah Harcross, the mill owner who effectively owns the town. She’s Harcross’ sole heir, to her father’s frequently expressed disappointment, because her brother died in the war. Harcross has dammed the local river in several places to provide water power for his mills. The resulting millponds, however, have attracted mosquitoes, and thus disease; every summer, epidemics of yellow fever devastate the community, but no one understands the cause. Meanwhile, Adam Ring, a Polish immigrant, partners with Kathleen’s father in a lucrative enterprise that moves from building coffins to selling insurance; meanwhile, the state’s established business interests try to use the law to shut them down at every turn. In the summer of 1866, Zebediah falls ill with a mysterious pain in his gut, and Spencer watches helplessly as disease threatens the town once again—with his wife and child now at risk. Hirschhorn re-creates a pivotal time in the history of medicine in which ignorance was displaced by observation and experimentation. His research into 19th-century New England business and medical practices is impressive, and there are many moving paragraphs about the horrors of war, poverty, and disease. However, sometimes the awkwardness of the text drags the novel down; misspelling is pervasive (“sophistocated”; “our’s”; “your’s”), and paragraphs are frequently broken. The author also uses foreshadowing much too often and without good reason. The treatment of the characters reflects the overall unevenness: the men have depth and detail, while the women (particularly Kathleen and Elizabeth) are superficially developed. The ending, in which many plot threads converge, feels rushed, and the climax is therefore stripped of suspense.
A novel with a compelling plot and intriguing characters but undermined by very uneven execution.