As the first class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – a ragtag amalgam of “charity” students and Harvard wannabes and rejects, all intensely brilliant – prepares to graduate in 1868, it becomes clear that there is a madman on the loose in Boston. While rival Harvard, in the person of Professor Louis Agassiz, religious and anti-Darwin, undertakes an investigation with the Boston Police Department’s imprimatur, a group of Technologists – Darwinists and believers in the saving grace of industry and technology – begin to unravel the growing mystery as virtually each passing day brings another disaster of almost Biblical proportion.
With each new twist and turn of the plot, we learn more about the protagonist, Marcus Mansfield, a “machine guy” and former Union prisoner of war. Given the opportunity to rise above his station, Mansfield encourages four of his “fellows,” one of whom is Ellen Swallow, the first woman ever to attend MIT and ultimately a professor there, to pursue the individual responsible for the catastrophic, and entirely fictional, events tearing Boston to shreds.
This novel is a true combination of the historical and the fantastical. While Marcus is fictional, most of the other Technologists, Agassiz and other Harvard and Boston notables are historical personages. Characters are drawn with loving attention to detail and spring to life full-blown. The tensions between MIT and Harvard, from MIT’s inception, are palpable and historically accurate. Pearl’s greatest talent is in taking what is verifiably true and meshing it with fictional elements, making of it a cohesive whole. Although at times the pacing of the plot may slow, I found this book to be a wonderful excursion into a time and place with which I was not familiar. Highly recommended.