Books: The Bone Garden

This is the first book I have read by Tess Gerritsen, and from the reviews I have read it is not one of her best. Since I did enjoy this one, though, I look forward to reading others by the same author.

The Bone Garden is a combination of mystery and romance, historical fiction, social commentary (on Boston in 1830), and a detailed picture of the state of medicine in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The romance is the weakest part, in my opinion, but then I wouldn’t have picked up the book if that had been its primary element. I was more interested in the mystery, and while one customer review at amazon.com claims that the solution was clear from about a quarter of the way through the book, I certainly did not see it until much closer to the conclusion.

The novel attempts to intertwine the mystery/romance of 1830 with one in the present time, as a young divorcee named Julia attempts to learn the story behind a skeleton found in the garden of the house she just bought. Together with a crotchety old man whose cousin previously owned Julia’s house, she gradually unravels the story by reading letters written by “O. W. H.” to “Margaret,” letters found in boxes in the old house when its elderly owner died.

I agree with other reviewers at amazon.com that this part of the novel, set in the present, is weak and could easily have been left out. The real story takes place in 1830, and after a while I was glad the present-day chapters were as short as they were, because I wanted to get back to where the real action took place. Here in Boston in 1830, the lives of several characters are increasingly intertwined, all somehow involved in a mystery that involves a serial killer.

Rose Connolly is an Irish immigrant, fiercely determined to protect those she loves. She can’t save her sister from the agony and death of “childbed fever,” but she can and does keep her infant niece safe from the mysterious strangers who are seeking her, mostly likely to kill her. She will also do all she can to protect young medical student Norris Marshall, with whom she falls in love, but most of Boston is convinced that he is behind the series of mutilated corpses (after all, who better than a medical student to know how to cut up bodies?). Why should anyone believe a young Irish woman (after all, every knows the Irish cannot be trusted), when she is probably his accomplice?

Gerritsen could have been a bit less heavy-handed in the social commentary. Yes, the poor, especially the Irish, lived in horrible conditions. Yes, the prejudice based on ethnic background and social class (how dare a poor person express anything but respect and gratitude to his betters?) caused many injustices. Yes, women were also discriminated against (a woman become a doctor? unthinkable!), and poor women were taken advantage of, both by men of their own class and the more privileged. But after those points have been made a few times, continued hammering on them doesn’t lead to greater insight.

For me, a fan of historical fiction, the detailed picture of medicine and medical studies was the most interesting part. As I’m not particularly squeamish, I was not bothered by the repeated and explicit descriptions of the look and smell of putrefying flesh. What is worst is that this often started before the patient died, due to utter ignorance of the germ theory and doctors’ habit of doing no more than wiping their bloody hands on a (not very clean) towel after examining one patient (or even a cadaver), before examining the next.

I had previously read of the life of Joseph Lister, who fought an uphill battle (ultimately successful) to persuade colleagues to keep themselves and the hospital wards clean. They considered his obsession with cleanliness a foolish waste of time. They did not like using carbolic acid, which burned their eyes and hands. But as the survival rate of Lister’s patients skyrocketed, the medical profession began to take notice.

Lister was only three years old, however, when The Bone Garden takes place, and hospitals were filthy places where people went to die rather than to get better. Unfortunately, women in labor who were not progressing well also went to the hospital, and while their babies might live, the women often died. Theories abounded as to the cause of this terrible illness, but none of them connected it to the lack of hygiene by the women’s physicians.

It was Oliver Wendell Holmes(not the Supreme Court justice, but his father) who changed that. In 1943, he published an essay arguing that puerperal fever – as the medical profession called “childbed fever” – was transmitted from patient to patient by their doctors. As evidence, he cited examples of doctors who had themselves contracted the fatal disease after doing an autopsy on a woman who had died of it.

In The Bone Garden, Oliver Wendell Holmes is a first-year medical student – as in fact he was in 1830. He and his classmates witness the attempt by another student to cut open a woman’s body, but the young man, squeamish and clumsy (and only in medical school because his uncle, the dean of the school, wants him to carry on the family tradition), cuts himself. Within a few days, he exhibits all the symptoms of puerperal fever, and only amputation of his hand saves his life. No doubt it was incidents such as this that convinced Holmes of his radical theory about the disease.

Holmes is also a friend of the fictional Norris Marshall, and plays a prominent role in the plot of this novel. He and Norris are perhaps the best developed characters in the book, both struggling to find their place in life, and not let themselves be defined merely by the circumstances of their birth. Norris, who grew up on a farm, aspires to the high calling of a physician. Wendell (as he is known in the book) loves to write poetry and studied law briefly before choosing a career in medicine, but he does not look down on Norris for his lower social station, and tried to persuade Norris not to assume that all the wealthy class are pompous snobs just because some of them are.

The other characters tend to caricature. Jack Burke, the body-snatcher, cares about nothing but money (amassed in order to protect his own corpse from someday ending on the anatomist’s table). The Wellover sisters are empty-headed, caring only for clothes and gossip. Pratt of the night watch is a buffoon, convinced of his own importance and of Norris’ guilt, with a callous disregard for evidence to the contrary.

Rose is perhaps not a caricature, but she struck me as too perfectly selfless to be real. She is left homeless after her sister’s death and her brother-in-law’s attempt to rape her, but she thinks only of her niece Meggy, and endures the long hours and poor working conditions as a seamstress to scrape together enough money to keep Meggy fed and safe (while she herself sleeps in a filthy tenement where twelve people sleep on dirty straw in a small room, with a bucket in the corner used as a chamberpot).

I admire her determination and her zeal to protect Meggy, but I cannot imagine never giving in to self-pity or wanting a bit of comfort for myself. (Rose does daydream of being one of the young ladies who wear the gowns she sews, but she shows no sign of coveting their easier life, only imagining it to get her mind off the miserable reality around her.) When Rose falls in love with Norris, her love is pure and her faith in him unassailable. Her faith in him is justified, as events show, but how is it possible to never entertain doubts?

Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t get as attached to these characters as in some other stories. I felt a lump in my throat, but I didn’t actually cry when… but I don’t want to spoil the story for you if you decide to read it.

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