By John Smolens
Quarantine by John Smolens was an extremely well researched and written piece of historical fiction. Set in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1796 the story made the reader aware of just how damaging an outbreak of a fever at the end of the 18th century really was.
Newburyport is a small port, where in 1796 the merchant ship Miranda arrives carrying a crew suffering from an unknown fever. Immediately the ship is put under quarantine, but in the time it takes the harbormaster to return to port and obtain a constable and a doctor, some of the crew and supplies from the Miranda are spirited ashore. Those leaving the boat are spotted by the doctor and the high constable as they are rowing out to the Miranda, there is little they can do to stop those already ashore. The doctor examines the ship and declares it a plague ship, leaving two rowboats full of men behind to guard the ship. Within hours, the first cases begin in Newburyport and the town must be isolated, a pest house established and ways devised to keep the plague from spreading, but try as they might, the plague does spread sweeping through the town. Medical supplies, already in high demand, are stolen to be sold on the black market. Newburyport is a town besieged by an unknown assailant in a time where prevalent medical thought encourages the use of bleeding, antibiotics, anti-virals are unknown and little is understood about the spread of disease. All the Newburyporters do know is that for some reason those who have had a similar fever in the South, or in the West Indies or other places in the Caribbean are immune to the fever. Throughout the port those who have already had the fever, mostly African Americans turn out in force to help the town battle the disease that in the beginning, when medical supplies are few, take the lives of almost everyone affected.
The burial pit on a hill in town keeps having to be enlarged as more and more people die daily. The doctor, Giles Wiggins, who is really a surgeon who established himself as such during the war with Britain, is the half-brother of one of the town’s richest men who also happens to be the owner of the Miranda. When Giles goes to visit his mother for medical reasons his brother, Enoch Sumner, tries to convince, via bribery, to lift the quarantine on the Miranda. Of course, Giles makes it clear he is unable to do this and leaves the house with his brother angry with him.
The plague sweeps through the town with no apparent end in sight. Giles Wiggins, the surgeon turned doctor intuitively hits upon at least part of the problem, the disease is spread by mosquitos biting infected people and then moving on to bite uninfected people spreading the disease, but prevailing theory at the time doesn’t accept this idea and so Wiggins concept goes unheeded. He tells the other doctor administering to the plague victims to clear up all the puddles of standing water and to pray for cooler weather and the quick coming of a frost. The doctor acts as though Giles is a madman, himself being convinced of a current theory that holds that volcanic eruptions in other places have released harmful vapors into the atmosphere and that these vapors are responsible for the increase in disease.
By the end of the book, you will be struck by man’s narrow-mindedness, as well as his inhumanity when dealing with others of his species. You will find joy with those who discover love in the midst of the plague and you will cry with those who lose loved ones to the plague’s unrelenting grasp.
I recommend Quarantine because from the historical perspective it is such an accurate depiction of the way things were, back when our country was new, and people were still unused to the title the United States. It is meticulously researched which makes it infinitely lifelike and it is simply a fascinating read that will take you back in time and leave your heart racing, which after all, is what a good book is all about.