“Archangel: Fiction” by Andrea Barrett, and a further look at “Ship Fever”

“Archangel” deals with the history of scientific knowledge. (I’m quoting from the description on Amazon.) Characters wrestle with scientific questions and respond to change in their various fields. What’s it like to give up a major scientific model when a better one comes along? Think about evolution. Relativity. BIG concepts, and their importance spills into many aspects of life, including religion. Two stories deal with the intersection of science and war. X-ray imaging saved lives in World War I. Did it make the war longer? Worse? Better? Good writing, but I found the book choppy.

I finally read the title story of the “Ship Fever”collection, a fictionalized account of one aspect of the Irish “potato famine” of 1845 to 1849. To me, this is family history. My Irish grandmother (maiden name Lynch) was born in the United States about a generation after the famine. I regret that I didn’t ask more questions about her parents and what she knew of her family’s experiences.

The famine caused emigration. Many desperate souls left Ireland in illicit “coffin ships”, on which the death rate was about 20% of passengers.

Barrett’s story (novella?) recounts the catastrophic conditions at one Canadian entry port, on an island near Toronto. The protagonist is a young doctor who unwittingly plunges into the maelstrom of dead, dying and suffering immigrants. Eventually he catches the disease and succumbs. The remainder of the narrative follows a young immigrant woman who survived, nursed the doctor and eventually contacted his loved ones in the aftermath.

So… a rough read for me, in the midst of Covid. Consider the issue of “aftermath”. The whole famine covered a period of a few years. The book runs across a few months.

Andrea Barrett is still on my list of authors who merit further attention.


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