Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Servants of the Map

I started reading seriously about forty years ago, staring with Tom Swift, Jr. books and progressing from there. After four decades of reading, I am pleased that at times I can still get very excited about new discoveries. Sometimes it’s new authors, other times specific books. A half-dozen years ago I was very excited at reading Andrea Barrett’s first collection Ship Fever, followed by her novel Voyage of the Narwhal. Needless, to say I was very excited at the publication recently of her second collection Servants of the Map. The danger, of course, is that sometimes when one’s expectation are too high, so the book cannot possibly achieve those expectations, and what would otherwise be an enjoyable experience turns disappointing. So I tried to temper my enthusiasm as I started the book.

The best praise I can give Servants of the Map is that it compares favorably with Ship Fever. As were Barrett’s recent two books, it is primarily concerned with scientists’ passion for their work. It is not the science aspect which appeals to me so much, but the passion. I am equally-enamored with works about artists and writers who approach their fields with passion rather than merely as uninvolved workers.

“Servants of the Map” is an award-winning novella about an English map-maker who in the mid-19th century leaves his family for nearly two years to help research maps in central Asia, particularly in the foothills of the Himalayas. Most of the story consists of a series of letters written by the protagonist to his newlywed wife in England. At the story’s outset his love and yearning for her are so powerful that nothing else seems to matter to him (which made me wonder why he ever undertook the journey at such a point in his life, but I shrugged that off as dramatic license). As the story progressed though, his love for his work and for the exotic lands he is visiting grows so strong that we can see his feelings for his family fading into the background. This is a strong story, both exotic and well-written, but it is not the best story in the book.

“The Forest” is much stronger. A long novelette, it takes place in a single night during which a distinguished but aging Polish scientist reaches England where he is immediately thrust into a party of fellow scientists. At the party we see both the competitive attitude of scientists towards each other as well as the attitude of people towards old age. This is a very powerful story indeed.

Both “Two Rivers” and “The Mysteries of Ubiquitin” are love stories about scientists, in which the science serves as facets of the characters’ lives rather than the raison d’etre of the stories themselves. In the former, Caleb is the son of a headmaster of a private school in the early 19th century. His father teaches science from a strict biblical point of view, while Caleb offers more modern views. Meanwhile Caleb falls in love with the younger Miriam who teaches her deaf sister and a few other youngsters, ultimately leading Caleb to convert his own school–after the death of his father–into a school for the deaf.

“Mysteries” describes how the childhood crush of an eight year old with a thirty-year old family friend evolves twenty years later into a fullblown love affair when she has become a star in the scientific world but he is struggling to find funding in the unpopular field of entomology. The story is a good view of finally getting what one has wished for so long and realizing exactly what one has.

The finest story in the book is the long novella “The Cure”, which is a sequel to “Ship Fever,” the finest story in her previous collection. The original story told about an Irish immigrant named Nora and her younger brothers who were separated at Grosse Island since she was deathly sick and they were healthy, and the Canadian authorities were sending the healthy to new homes while caring for the sick. Nora survived and began searching for her brothers.

In “The Cure” Nora eventually locates her brother Ned running a boarding house in a rural community in an Adirondack region which is developing a reputation as a healthy region for people with consumption (tuberculosis). The story tells of their life together, how Nora cares for the invalids in the area, how her son Michael becomes Ned’s apprentice, and how Nora takes as apprentice the daughter of the protagonist of “Servants of the Map”. It is a warm, thoughtful story, whose foundation is not science so much as rural life.

While overall Servants of the Map is not as good as Ship Fever or Voyage of the Narwhal, it will not disappoint Barrett’s fans. If you’ve read any of her other books, you’ll likely enjoy this one. But if you have never read her before, I recommend you begin with one of the other two before reading this book.

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