Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist
Author: Matthew Guinn
Publication: W. W. Norton & Company (July 8, 2013)

Description: A young doctor wrestles with the legacy of a slave “resurrectionist” owned by his South Carolina medical school.

"Dog days and the fresh bodies are arriving once again." So begins the fall term at South Carolina Medical College, where Dr. Jacob Thacker is on probation for Xanax abuse. His interim career—working public relations for the dean—takes an unnerving detour into the past when the bones of African American slaves, over a century old, are unearthed on campus. Out of the college’s dark past, these bones threaten to rise and condemn the present.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, one of the school’s founders, had purchased a slave for his unusual knife skills. This slave, Nemo ("no man") would become an unacknowledged member of the surgical faculty by day—and by night, a "resurrectionist," responsible for procuring bodies for medical study. An unforgettable character, by turns apparently insouciant, tormented, and brilliant, and seen by some as almost supernatural, Nemo will seize his self-respect in ways no reader can anticipate.

With exceptional storytelling pacing and skill, Matthew Guinn weaves together past and present to relate a Southern Gothic tale of shocking crimes and exquisite revenge, a riveting and satisfying moral parable of the South.

My Thoughts: This was a fascinating book that talks about the early practices at medical schools and current political cover ups when those practices are brought to light. 

In the 1999 portion of the story, Jacob Thacker is working PR for his medical school as he serves out a suspension for drug abuse when bones are discovered in the basement. The bones of those of primarily black people who were used for teaching of the medical students in the pre and post Civil War era. Their existence is a PR nightmare for the Dean of the school for whom the school's untarnished image is paramount. 

The second part of the story tells the story of the early days of the medical school and the black man named Nemo Johnston who was purchased to be the school's janitor, butler, and resurrectionist. He was charged with raiding the black cemeteries to supply the cadavers the medical students needed to learn anatomy and surgery. His portion of the story gives great insight into what it was like for a black slave in that time period. Nemo was atypical in that he was educated and knowledgeable. He even taught the anatomy classes but still did all the menial work too. 

Jacob learns a lot, even about his own family, when he begins to research the history of the school. He has lots of pressure on him to do the cover up. In fact, his future in medicine depends on it. This parallels the pressure put on Nemo Johnston in earlier times. 

The story was well-written and engaging and it was in interesting look at a time with attitudes much different than now. 

Favorite Quote:
The wooden spade slid into the earth soundlessly, worming into the newly turned soil like a hungry thing. Then rose, its blade full, and swung a swift half circle to the tarpaulin laid across the foot of the grave, where it shook its burden gently onto the canvas. Thus began the second coming of Quash Jones.
I got this finished copy for review at ALA. You can buy your copy here.

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