Barrett, Andrea. Ship Fever. (N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1986, rpt. 1996). ISBN 0393316009 (paperback, available used in various earlier printings)
Barrett plays several interesting games with her readers, some involving language and some involving the science of medicine. Though her Irish characters often speak no English, Barrett enables us to eavesdrop upon their thoughts in a "translation" of their Gaelic that the English-speaking characters cannot hear or understand if they do hear it. Her withholding of this information from the young doctors creates numerous opportunities for dramatic irony and foreshadowing which the readers, alone, can see. How does this affect our engagement with the plot--what moral/ethical pressures are we subjected to by virtue of our quasi-god-like perspective?
She also allows us to see evidence that a modern biologist would interpret far differently from the nineteenth-century doctors when diagnosing the causes and remedies for "ship fever." Modern medicine makes an important difference between "symptoms" (observable changes in bodily functions or appearance) and "pathology" (the real cause of the disease). Diagnosis involves assembling symptoms into various trial mental organizations to see whether they fit a given known pathology, trying to avoid various diagnostic traps which all our minds are prone to (e.g., "satisfaction of search error"). In this case, the doctors trained to look for disease causes in "bad air" or contact with "infected clothing" do not see the significance of two other pieces of evidence Barrett trolls before her readers without interpreting them medically, contact with bodily fluids of infected people and the presence of certain common parasites that are now known to be "disease vectors." What does this mean for the modern reader who takes the time to look up "typhus" and "typhoid fever" in the Encyclopedia Britannica or some other trust-worthy source of basic medical information? Should you have to do "research" like that to be a competent reader of a novel? What does this suggest to you about the way you currently view the world and the problem of disease? What might we now be missing that readers a century from now will be alert to?
As is the case with many dual-plot works of fiction, Barrett's plots appear to be designed to bring together romantically one of the doctors and one of the Irish immigrant patients. From what source do we get our intuition about the direction such plots will take? How do authors work with those intuitions? What does Barrett do with our expectations, and what does that mean for our sense of the novel's "closure" or sense of an ending?
"The English Pupil," about Karl Linnaeaus' last year of life and the pupils he taught to describe the plants and animals of our world, draws upon a number of historical resources that Barrett does not mention because she is writing historical fiction rather than academic prose. I wonder if she had access to the surviving personal letters of Linnaeus to his colleagues and pupils? Click here for a Center for the Study of the Eighteenth Century site that is preparing to upload the correspondence to the web. Using it, you can test whether Barrett is making up the relationships between Linnaeus and the students as part of her work as a fiction writer, or whether the students are real historical persons the scientist knew. Think about the value of reading letters from famous authors of the past, Thoreau or Voltaire, for instance. And when the authors are still alive, like Aebi and Sterling, think about the possibility of writing them letters, yourself! It's all "research," AKA being curious about the universe and using the tools of your education to explore it. Click here for some issues that seemed important to me in 2006 when I had to fill in for an ill student in a watch.