In 1830 Burlington, Vermont, a young woman named “Speedy” (Experience) Goodrich dies of a botched abortion. An inquest is held to determine who, among the students and professors of the budding medical school, is responsible. Archivist Jeffrey Marshall used the transcript of this inquest as the seed of his novel. He utilizes three points of view: that of the accused student Charles Daggett; the fictional scribe, a philosophy student; and Speedy’s sister Nancy. Marshall’s years of archival research have given his book an authentic tone (I questioned only three words), rife with such phrases as “Speedy learned us many games” and “domestick arts.” I appreciated the description of primitive medicine, how the grieving family is offered a guard for Speedy’s grave so her body won’t be exhumed by cadaver-hungry dissection students, and the condemnation, not so much that the abortion occurred, but that ignorant men should have been called in rather than midwives who know which end is which.
However, like archives, or even period fiction, the promised conflicts of “burned over” revivalist religion and the social rift between haves and have-nots during this period fail to materialize to full effect. No one actually goes to a revivalist meeting, for example, to give us a sense of what the fervor must have been like; we are told, not shown. And the different voices didn’t add the perspective I hope for from this device.
Notes and a guide for reading groups at the end may add the spark missing in the body of the book.