This stunning new novel from Diane McKinney-Whetstone, nationally bestselling author of Tumbling , begins in the chaotic backstreets of post-Civil War Philadelphia as a young black woman gives birth to a child fathered by her wealthy white employer.Read more...
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This stunning new novel from Diane McKinney-Whetstone, nationally bestselling author of Tumbling, begins in the chaotic backstreets of post-Civil War Philadelphia as a young black woman gives birth to a child fathered by her wealthy white employer.
In a city riven by racial tension, the father's transgression is unforgivable. He has already arranged to take the baby, so it falls to Sylvia, the midwife's teenage apprentice, to tell Meda that her child is dead--a lie that will define the course of both women's lives. A devastated Meda dedicates herself to working in an orphanage and becomes a surrogate mother to two white boys; while Sylvia, fueled by her guilt, throws herself into her nursing studies and finds a post at the Lazaretto, the country's first quarantine hospital, situated near the Delaware River, just south of Philadelphia.
The Lazaretto is a crucible of life and death; sick passengers and corpses are quarantined here, but this is also the place where immigrants take their first steps toward the American dream. The live-in staff are mostly black Philadelphians, and when two of them arrange to marry, the city's black community prepares for a party on its grounds. But the celebration is plunged into chaos when gunshots ring out across the river.
As Sylvia races to save the victim, the fates of Meda's beloved orphans also converge on the Lazaretto. Long ago, one -brother- committed an unthinkable act to protect the other, sparking a chain of events that now puts the Lazaretto on lockdown. Here conflicts escalate, lies collapse, and secrets begin to surface; like dead men rising, past sins cannot be contained.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-01-04
- Reviewer: Staff
Setting her book once again in her native city of Philadelphia, Pa., McKinney-Whetstone opens her sixth novel on the eve of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Meda, a beautiful young black woman, delivers the secret child of her employer, lawyer Tom Benin (who is white), at a medical office for clandestine services. After the baby is taken from her at birth, Sylvie, an apprentice to the midwife, lies and tells Meda her infant girl has died. Bereft and ungrounded, Meda seeks consolation by serving as a wet nurse to a pair of white newborn boys at a nearby orphanage, naming them Bram and Linc after the slain president she admired. Through a deal with Benin, Bram and Linc are able to stay with Meda on weekends and holidays. After cruelty and abuse from their employer forces the boys from Philadelphia, Meda and her family continue to treat them as their own. In the meantime, Sylvia has become a formidable and capable nurse at the city's island quarantine hospital, Lazaretto. When the boys return to the city in desperate circumstances, old paths eventually converge at the hospital. McKinney-Whetstone explores racial passing, class prejudice, the nature of family, and the longings of forbidden love, but the disjointed narratives often feel like two separate novels uncomfortably forced together. The emotional content is never allowed to rise above predictable contrivances of plot and unremarkable characterizations. (Apr.)
Carving out a space in a harsh time in America
In five previous novels, Diane McKinney-Whetstone has painted a vivid portrait of 20th-century black life in Philadelphia—from the Jazz Age in her first book, Tumbling, right up to the 1990s in Blues Dancing. With her sixth novel, Lazaretto, McKinney-Whetstone turns to the 19th century.
The book opens on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, when a pregnant maid named Meda visits a midwife who “had become well known in the whispered circles of rich white men as a viable solution to the consequence of their indiscretions.” The midwife makes a fateful decision regarding Meda’s baby that will reverberate for the rest of the novel.
This is just one of many deceptions in a book filled with characters who may not be what they seem. Consider orphans Linc and Bram, both named after the beloved fallen president. They tug at the heartstrings of Meda, and, when they grow older, make a fatal mistake, forcing them to flee Philadelphia. They return, however, and that’s when Lazaretto really hits its stride: The quarantine hospital that lends the book its title becomes the site of a much-anticipated wedding, bringing many of the characters together for what is supposed to be a joyous event. But events beyond the staff’s control interrupt the wedding, harshly reminding McKinney-Whetstone’s African-American characters of their place in the social hierarchy.
There may be a bit too much melodrama in Lazaretto for some readers, and at times the years seem to fly by too quickly. Overall, though, McKinney-Whetstone’s sympathetic characters and historical touches (one character eats a “king’s breakfast of peppered cow’s brain and cornbread”) more than compensate. Meda, at one point, laments “the tragedy of a life with no history at all.” Once again, McKinney-Whetstone has managed to bring to life a wide range of characters whose triumphs and tribulations would never show up in a history book.