Sunday, May 24, 2009

Book Review: Speckled Monster

Carrel’s historical fictional novel brings to life Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Zabdiel Boyleston’s efforts to bring inoculation into the medical practice of the western world. I am amazed at how she was able to use letters, diaries, newspapers, and other primary documents to reconstruct what happened. By bringing out the characters as humans, she reminds us that they are not just figures in a history book, but takes us through their emotions and social interactions. Looking back on historical achievements, it may be easy to forget that progress can often be an uphill battle that is met with a lot of resistance.

For example, Carrel brings out the courage that these characters had in facing the strong, and often violent, opposition to inoculation. However, they continued to promote inoculation because of their dedication to fighting smallpox, stemmed from having suffered it themselves and having lost loved ones to the disease. After one of his patients dies from inoculation, Boyleston is described to have a personal moral conflict regarding his culpability in the patient’s death. Yet, in just a reading from a history textbook, the reader would not be aware of the characters’ personal motivations and emotional trials. Thus, reading this book makes the achievements and contributions of Mary and Boylseton all the more appreciated.

For those skeptics who wonder how much is true and how much is fiction, Carrel provides a detailed delineation in the “notes” appendage. I myself started reading the book wondering, “How does she know all this stuff?”. The answer is that she probably is making it up, but writing what probably happened based on primary sources. I am most impressed by the immense amount and the vast diversity of her research, digging through current health statistics, historical journals, and personal correspondences. Most of the discourse and communication is based on actual exchanges preserved in letters, while other anecdotes derive from Lady Mary’s granddaughter’s recollections. I also appreciate how Carrel was able to take statistics from sources such as the WHO and contextualize it into the time period. I do wish that she would included footnotes in the novel so that the reader could discern fact from fiction while reading.

Despite the fact that the book probably glorified Lady Mary and Boyleston more than is factually accurate, and that it threw in bits not necessarily historically relevant (love stories and affairs), The Speckled Monster is a worthwhile read for those desiring a fuller picture of the historical events in the history of smallpox. However, it is not for those who only desire the facts, nor for those looking for a literary piece of art. I do wish that a director would become inspired by this book to turn it into a movie; this would succeed in bringing the main historical events to public knowledge, showing the personal side of the characters, and flavoring it with some romantic drama – and the audience would only have sacrificed two hours. (PS I would cast Kate Winslet as Mary, Kevin Spacey as Boyleston, and Will Smith as Boylseton’s slave).


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