On the night that Abraham Lincoln is assassinated in a theater in Washington, DC, Sylvie, a young black girl, delivers a baby. The baby’s mother, Meda, is in service to a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer. Although she is told her baby is dead without even having a chance to hold it, she is, despite her grief, able to work in a local orphanage and bring up two abandoned white boys. She names them Linc and Bram, after the much-loved President. The story of these two boys will intersect with those of Sylvie, Meda, and their friends over the years, until the different lives of McKinney-Whetstone’s characters dramatically collide during a period of enforced quarantine at the Lazaretto hospital.
First and foremost, this is a wonderful story, beautifully told. The characters are engaging and live richly imagined lives full of love, lies and conflict. Sylvie becomes a nurse at the Lazaretto hospital and holds her suitor, Carl, at arm’s length, preferring work to marriage. Linc and Bram suffer in the orphanage, until their time there ends in violence and they are forced to flee Philadelphia altogether. Only when they reach Lazaretto will the truth of their lives come to light.
McKinney-Whetstone’s use of language is very strong and bears comparison with that of Toni Morrison. It is worth noting that colorism amongst the black community is a significant theme in this novel, as it has been in more than one of Morrison’s novels. The period and settings are wonderfully evoked with multi-sensory descriptions, ranging from cooking smells to the stink of gangrene, and from the feel of the cuffs that hang from the walls of an abandoned slave cottage to the sting of a whip across the back of the hand. A very moving book.