Set in 1796 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a young man comes of age during an age of pestilence, loss and grief.
The trading vessel Miranda carries with it not merely cargo but a fever which has rendered it tantamount to a ghost ship. When Dr. Giles Wiggins quarantines the port, he raises the ire of his wealthy ship-builder half-brother and his mother. As the fever spreads and decimates much of the vibrant seaport’s population, greed, fear and desperation spread as well. It is an environment ripe for religious zealots, privateers and mob rule.
From an entire family, only young Leander Hatch survives. He is befriended by Giles and ultimately, his own fortune is tied up inextricably with the lessons he learns from the doctor. Although merely a ship’s surgeon, Giles recognizes that the sick who are being bled by more skilled physicians are dying just as quickly and that there must be a source for the fever that can be controlled or eliminated.
This is an interesting novel about a time, place and events with which I was unfamiliar. Smolens is able to advance his plot through twists of character development, particularly in Leander, who matures quickly in the face of terrible losses and the devastation of the town he knows and loves. I found, however, that, as the town’s panic increases, the pace slows.