Archive for January 29, 2014

A Book Review: Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett

0393316009.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_This is a very lovely, well written group of stories. I enjoyed them a great deal. Each story in this collection shares a theme in that each gives a glimpse into the life of a scientist, focusing more on their humanity than on their scientific discoveries. Barrett’s stories touch on Mendel, Wallace, Linnaeus, Darwin, and others. Most times, when we learn about the famous scientists of the past, all we are taught is an equation. Or a theory. Or a law. Maybe some dates for context. This always bothered me a little bit when I was in class. Sometimes I’d wonder about these people and the conditions that they lived in that allowed/forced them to come up with their great ideas. Barrett seems to have had similar feelings. By extensively researching these scientists and the times/surroundings that they were immersed in, and mixing in her prodigious writin’ skills, she was able to produce stories that had both a very high degree of authenticity/realism and were a delight to read. These are certainly works of historical fiction, with fabricated relationships and conversations and other details, but nothing feels forced or phoney. I don’t know that Barrett’s primary goal was necessarily to humanize these men and women (mostly men, sadly, because sexism) and make them a bit more relatable/understandable, but that’s certainly what I took away from this collection.

Also, in some of these stories, she opts to write about fictional men and women of science instead. By sharing their (made up) stories, and comparing/contrasting these more humble figures with notable scientists, Barrett strips away a lot of the fantasy that surrounds many of the historical thinkers of the past. We are reminded that these historically important figures weren’t demigods… they were just people. Intelligent and charismatic, certainly, but just people. She even takes the time to remind us that just because these folks were brilliant, they were far from omniscient. For example, in one of her stories about Carl Linnaeus (the man considered to be “the father of modern taxonomy and ecology”), she highlights Linnaeus’s belief that instead of migrating, migratory birds hibernated underwater during the winter months, returning to the surface once ponds and lakes thawed.

Anyway, my favorite stories in this collection are The Behavior of the Hawkweeds (which touches on the discoveries of Gregor Mendel) and the titular story/novella Ship Fever (which looks at the Typhus epidemic of 1847 on Grosse Isle, Quebec from the viewpoints of both a doctor and a patient). If you like science or scientists or historical fiction or short stories or quality writing, this collection is almost certainly something that you’d enjoy.

4.5 stars! (out of 5)

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Miles run in 2014: 34.3
Books read in 2014: 10