Visions of Paradise

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Ship Fever

I talk about Andrea Barrett’s wonderful novel The Voyage of the Narwhal awhile ago, but nearly as good is her National Board Award-winning collection Ship Fever. The stories in it are mostly related to science, particularly the love and pursuit of science by its main characters. While I am not in love with science nor wish to make its study my lifework, I am fascinated by it from a philosophical point of view and intrigued by the workings of scientists. Even more importantly, the science favored in this book is natural science, perhaps the most interesting science to me. And Barrett not only obviously loves science herself and understand scientists, but she is a truly excellent writer with an excellent understanding of people overall and what drives them in their quest for scientific knowledge.

The Behavior of the Hawkweeds is a story about how Gregor Mendel developed his theories of genetics and how his relationship with a scientist named Nageli virtually ruined his research. It is also the story of a young boy who befriended Mendel and fell in love with science himself as a result of that friendship, passing on that love to his granddaughter through their own close relationship. That girl built a marriage around the knowledge she garnered from her grandfather, marrying a scientist whose own love of genetics became as much the basis of their marriage as any love he shared with his wife. There was enough meat in this story that it could easily have been a bloated novel in other hands, but Barrett told it all in a succinct manner that turned into a rich, satisfying, thought-provoking novelette instead. Now I can’t wait to research Mendel and Nageli and find out how much of that story is truth and how much is in Barrett’s imagination!

The English Pupil discusses one of the darker side effects of dedication to science as an aging Carl Linnaeus recalls the lives and premature deaths of his former students who traveled the world seeking obscure botanical specimens to send back to their mentor. Some of Barrett’s finest writing is in this story, as in the following excerpt which discusses the bitterness of old age:

His once-famous memory was nearly gone, eroded by a series of strokes -- he forgot where he was and what he was doing; he forgot the names of plants and animals; he forgot faces, places, dates. Sometimes he forgot his own name. His mind, which had once seemed to hold the whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tiptoed gingerly. When he reached for facts they darted like minnows across the water and could only be captured by cunning and indirection.

Rare Bird is a wonderful story of the friendship between two 18th century women, a friendship based on their common love of science. One is a widow, the other an unmarried woman who has inherited her father’s intellect and love of science but who is under the economic thumb of her brother who has inherited their father’s wealth. Gradually he begins dominating his sister’s life, forcing her more and more into a traditional female’s role, away from discussions of the science she so loves.

The two friends begin investigating the centuries’ old belief that swallows spend the winter by somehow hibernating underwater, a belief which they find highly improbable, and which their experiments prove untrue. So they begin a correspondence with the famous Carl Linnaeus – yes, the same Linnaeus of The English Pupil, although much younger in this story – in an attempt to convince him of their finding but he is apparently more enamored by his beliefs than by the truth. And meanwhile, the brother is becoming more dominant in his sister’s affairs.

While the ending of this story was fitting, I found it quite frustrating in how abruptly the story ended when there was obviously so much more to tell. I was anxious to learn the fate of the two friends while the author was content to have them escape from the dominance of the brother and vanish somewhere where they could continue their experiments undeterred. Based on the other stories, it seemed out of character for Barrett not to explore their scientific explorations further, but the story was still powerful, if incomplete.

Birds With No Feet is a bittersweet tale of a young naturalist named Alec who is a contemporary and occasional collaborator of Alfred Wallace. In the mid 19th century he roams South America and Asia gathering specimens, both living and dead, of rare animals. He feels some sorrow for the animals he kills in his search, but in a letter Wallace reminds him that Each bird we shot and butterfly we netted was in the service of science.

But after several years it becomes apparent to Alec that there is a major difference in his research as compared to Wallace’s. Wallace has wealthy patrons and does not suffer many deprivations during his years in the wild, so that he is able to spend time analyzing his specimens and thinking about evolution, ultimately writing important papers proposing major new theories. Alec is poor, struggling to survive during his work. One time he does earn a portion of money which might support him for a long time, but his father swindles the money from Alec’s agent so that Alec receives none of it in Malaysia. Thus Alec is so pre-occupied with finding new specimens, trying to sell them to collectors back home to raise enough money to survive, that he has no time to analyze or devise theories (it never occurs to Alec that perhaps he is not smart enough to devise any theories). And while he considers himself a scientist, and the progress of science is indeed his goal, he actually accomplishes nothing more in his career than providing fancy specimens for rich collectors.

The centerpiece of the entire collection though is the short novel Ship Fever, a powerful tale of the Irish immigration to Canada as a result of the potato famine in the mid-19th century. Due largely to the inhumane conditions aboard the ships, the immigrants bring with them a massive typhus epidemic that affects such cities as Montreal and Toronto, but most notably Grosse Island, which is the point of debarkation for the European ships.

The story is told from the point of view of Dr. Lauchlin Grant, a young research scientist who has accomplished very little scientifically in his life and feels obligated to validate his learning by serving on the meager staff of doctors and nurses on Grosse Island. The story is equally concerned with Grant’s rite of passage among the horrors of the epidemic as with the sufferings of the immigrants themselves, the latter revealed mostly through Nora, a young immigrant whom Grant nurses to health and who becomes his own assistant and eventually his nurse when he contracts the disease. Through their eyes we see the horrid conditions of the arriving immigrants and the often-futile attempts made by the meager medical staff on Grosse Island to heal them. This is a major story about desperation, passion, and commitment, with a bittersweet ending that is both appropriate and moving.