Mistress of the Art of Death (2007), Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman)

artdeath

 

Quickly she knelt and asked the dead beyond the door to forgive her for handling their remains. She asked to be reminded not to forget the respect she owed them. “Permit your flesh and bone to tell me what your voices cannot.”

 

It is the year 1170. The city of Cambridge is tense. Four young children have been tortured to death. The people of the town have accused the Jewish community of blood libel and the perpetrators of the murders, causing them to flee their homes for protection in the castle. Henry II is angry and concerned. Imprisoned, the Jews are unable to pay the heavy taxes by which the king finances his realm. Henry does not believe the murders are the work of the Jews and must find a way to exonerate them. Henry writes to his cousin, the King of Sicily, who presides over the world renowned medical school in Salerno asking him to send his best “investigator of death.”

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the Mistress of the Art of Death, a combination modern day coroner and police detective. When she arrives with her Arab assistant Mansur and fellow investigator Simon of Naples, a Jew she must hide her true vocation. Though the cultural, religious and gender diversity of Salerno allows women in the medical college, Adelia’s specialty conflicts with the Church’s teachings on both women and dissection, so she is used to passing off her findings to her foster father. While in England Mansur becomes the doctor and she his assistant. At least at the beginning. From enlightened city to crude backwater, the trio of friends reluctantly make the journey. The moment they arrive in Cambridge, however, they are besieged with a multitude of illnesses and accidents untreatable before now. But the bodies of the children need to be examined and with some restrictions on her gender, the investigation begins.

The stabbing around the pelvis had left distinctive marks; she had seen knife wounds before, but none like these. The blade of the instrument that had caused them appeared to be much faceted. She would have liked to remove the pelvis for leisurely examination in better light, but she had promised Prior Geoffrey to do no dissection.

It is fascinating to watch how Adelia studies the bodies of the children and how she deduces their killers. It is like watching a Medieval version of a CSI episode. Body by body and clue by clue culminating in a frightful incident where Adelia almost meets her own end. But she succeeds in discovering the culprits responsible.

I was incredibly drawn to this story as it ticked many of the boxes I enjoyed studying in college. As the ‘king’s persons” Jews were England’s bank account being taxed to unbelievable degrees financing everything from the building of castles and cathedrals, the bankrolling of crusades to the general running of the realm. Thus, the king’s castle was their safety zone when attacked. They were an easy target when anything abnormal occurred. Leaving their homes and fleeing to the castle for the protection of the king was often a precarious situation. As illustrated in this story, anti-Jewish sentiment is so high with the townspeople, even when it is pointed out the Jews have been in the castle for a year and children have been killed during this time. The townspeople cook up an elaborate fantasy that the Jews leave by night and return to the castle early in the morning to commit the crimes. Never mind there are townspeople stationed at every entrance day and night which would make escape impossible.

Franklin also describes the diversity of students and teachers that peopled the medical school of Salerno, which included Arabs, Jews, Africans and others from across Europe, as well as women. The medical training here surpassed the other schools on the continent. Adelia, who was orphaned and fostered by a couple from the medical school, acknowledged her intellect from a young age and encouraged her studies. Adelia’s skills come from her training and investigative experience, which included time spent at the pig farm, a medieval version of the modern-day body farm.

Adelia was forcing herself to see a pig [not a child]. Pigs were what she’d learned on. Pigs—the nearest approximation in the animal world to human flesh and bone. Up in the hills behind a high wall, Gordinus had kept dead pigs for his students, some buried, some exposed to the air, some in a wooden hut, others in a stone byre…Most of the students introduced to the his death farm had been revolted by the flies and stench and had fallen away; only Adelia saw the wonder of the process that reduced a cadaver to nothing.

One of the strengths of this historically dense novel is constructing a story with a protagonist who is foreign and unfamiliar with the culture in which she is thrust. The reader learns along with Adelia, Mansur and Simon, so prior knowledge of the period is unnecessary and Franklin’s narrative makes it easy to follow the story. And to further this point, Franklin uses the British to further our knowledge. Though most of the townspeople are portrayed as suspicious and ignorant of foreigners, the novel opens with a band of pilgrims and crusaders having just returned from the Holy Land. Several of the knights are familiar with the customs and culture of both the Arab and Jewish worlds and of Europeans in general. Franklin uses their knowledge in usually positive, but sometimes humorous ways to make points about the cultural and dietary habits of Mansur, Simon and Adelia.

A Personal Observation

I have missed out on many richly drawn historical novels. Early in Medieval studies it was drummed into our heads that we couldn’t take fictionalized accounts of historical events seriously and were discouraged from books and other historical “reconstructions.” “This could never have happened.” “That is just historically inaccurate.” I can remember classmates mocked for their interest in the King Arthur mythos or those students who participated in the activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The only contemporary Medieval fiction we were encouraged to read was Josephine Tey’s, The Daughter of Time, because it was about research. It has taken me a long time to reject those voices critical of historical fiction. And that’s too bad. I have a lot of catching up to do.

In this regard, if those professors of mine were still alive I would make them read this book! While obviously some license has to be taken in the way a story like this is told in order for a modern person to understand it, historical accuracy does not have to suffer.

The novel is a page turner, a fascinating mystery and manages to dispel ignorance about the Middle Ages many people may have.

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Challenges: RIPXIII, RBRTBR

 

Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (2000)

fever

 

I didn’t run from the redcoats, and I won’t run from a dockside miasma. What is wrong with people…We suffered all kinds of disease in our youth, but folks were sensible. They didn’t squall like children and hide in the woods. Captain William Farnsworth Cook, Pennsylvania Fifth Regiment.

Fever 1793, is a compelling historical novel based on the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia during the stifling hot summer of 1793. The story centers on 13-year old Mattie Cook, who watches helplessly as her beloved city grapples with the fear and devastation the epidemic wreaks.

Mattie’s parents own Cook’s Coffeehouse, a hub for politicians and merchants located two blocks from President Washington’s house. Philadelphia is the nation’s first capital city and Mattie is proud to live here. Since her father died, she helps her mother run the business along with Polly, the serving girl and her childhood friend, and Eliza, a free black who has been cooking up the special fare Cook’s is known for since it opened. As the city has prospered, so has Cook’s.

But August has brought fever—just a few cases to start, but enough to worry Mattie’s mother, Lucille, who forbids her daughter from doing any errands or getting provisions down at the docks. Some people are certain the refugees from Barbados have brought the illness and want them quarantined. Though others remind them there is always a sickness during the height of summer heat. Still, there are more cases as August progresses and there have been deaths. Lucille puts more restrictions on Mattie, who is frustrated at being so confined. When Polly does not come to work one day and it is learned she died of the fever, Lucille is adamant that Mattie be sent out of the city to friends out of town.

When it is declared the illness is in fact yellow fever, Philadelphia quickly empties as the wealthy leave for their homes in the country and others write to friends and family outside the city hoping they will take them in. Ships stop docking making food and other supplies scarce forcing businesses to close. Many who can’t get out hoard as much food as they can and close up their homes hunkering down inside for the duration. Amidst protest, Mattie is sent away with her grandfather.

And so begins Mattie’s harrowing journey to the family she never gets to, to the fever that almost kills her and the hospital stay where she recovers. Though weak and with Philadelphia still in the grip of the fever, her age precludes her being released with no place to go. There is no word of her mother’s fate and her aged grandfather cannot take full responsibility for her. Her only option is an orphan house for children who lost their parents and who have no other family to care for them.

But Mattie refuses. She wants to find her mother and go back home. Her determination cannot be matched, so she and her grandfather return to the coffeehouse only to find it has been plundered. After a few days of cleaning up, the coffeehouse is again broken into and her grandfather is killed. Mattie is now afraid to stay by herself.

Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. The chambers of diseases were deserted, and the sick left to die of negligence. None could be found to remove the lifeless bodies. Their remains, suffered to decay by piecemeal, filled the air with deadly exhalations, and added tenfold to the devastation. Charles Brockden Brown (Memoirs of the Year 1793)

One of the very engaging aspects of the book are the historical quotes that begin each chapter adding to the reality of this frightening time. The real epidemic killed an astonishingly 5,000 people during the summer and early fall of 1793 until the first frost in October brought it to an end.

Anderson incorporates into the novel several contentious issues the epidemic sparked, including the controversial use of bloodletting to “release the poisons” from the blood; the argument between doctors who believed the fever spread through a “miasma” in the air, therefore confining patients to rooms with no access to fresh air versus those doctors who believed fresh air was healthy and part of the cure; the overwhelming number of children orphaned by the epidemic who needed to be housed; how the fever transformed some relationships between blacks and whites who worked together to help the city; and how this catastrophe brought out the best and worst in people as they fought for their lives.

There is great distress in the city for want of cash. Friendship is nearly entirely banished from our city. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

Not for the The Free African Society, however. Founded in 1787 to aid widows, the infirm and out of work Africans, during the epidemic it offered to help all citizens of Philadelphia. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones co-founders of the Society put advertisements in the papers: “We set out to see where we could be useful—the black people were looked to. We then offered our services in the public papers, by advertising that we would remove the dead and procure nurses.”

And in fact, this is how Mattie found Eliza. After her grandfather was killed, Mattie knew she couldn’t stay in the coffeehouse and set out looking for news of her mother. She stumbled upon Eliza in the streets and found she was caring for and feeding the sick wherever she was needed. Eliza was able to fill Mattie in on all that had transpired since she was sent away. Mattie learned that her mother had gone to the family she was sent to, so what could she think when she found that Mattie had never arrived? But for the moment it was decided that without her grandfather and with the business too dangerous to stay in alone, Mattie would stay with Eliza’s family and would go out with her and nurse the sick.

Blessed be God for the change in the weather. The disease visibly and universally declines. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

For weeks the city was caught in the grip of fever, death carts piled high as they rumbled down the streets. Finally, one blessed night a frost sets in and in a little more than a day or two the epidemic is over. Almost immediately the ships begin to dock bringing food and supplies to the beleaguered city and those who went to the country come back. George Washington makes his way back to Philadelphia and the whole city comes alive.

But Mattie has an uncertain future ahead of her. It is suggested she go into an orphan house until she reaches maturity. If she sells the coffeehouse, she can use the money for a dowry. Maturity? Hasn’t she seen and done enough in the last few months as any adult? No, she thinks. The coffeehouse is hers and it is a good respectful business. She will reopen it. But she knows she can’t do it alone and there is only one person she can trust who also has the experience to make the coffeehouse successful again. Though it is unconventional, she asks Eliza to go into partnership. She does not have to be asked twice.

A very satisfying book in which I learned about an event in American history I did not know before.

__________

My Edition
Title: Fever 1793
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2000
Pages: 252
Full plot summary