As sometimes happens, my latest interview, with Diane McKinney-Whetstone, ended on a thought-provoking note. We were discussing differences as exemplified in her new novel, Lazaretto, and the importance of respecting others who are unlike ourselves—indeed, respecting them because they are unlike ourselves.
At its heart, Lazaretto explores the complexity of race—itself a social, not a scientific construct—and of racial definitions in the United States. Slavery has ended with the Civil War, but late nineteenth-century Philadelphia is still a world where black lives matter less than white ones, where immigrants are feared as harbingers of disease and quarantined to protect the city that does not quite welcome them. The issues are as fresh as yesterday’s headlines, as the current political campaign. Human beings seem to have an innate tendency to settle on insignificant differences that then become the basis for dominance games. We believe that familiarity means sameness, and that sameness will keep us safe.
But in nature, sameness brings death. A population that shrinks in size to the point where it becomes inbred falls victim to birth defects or disease. When the French grapevines failed, almost destroying the wine industry, the solution lay in importing vines from California that could resist the blight and grafting the French stock onto them. In diversity lies strength.
So it makes no sense to fear the other simply because he or she comes from somewhere else or does not look like us in some superficial way. That difference may one day be exactly what we need.
The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
A hundred years before Ellis Island became a processing center for immigrants wishing to enter the United States, Philadelphia had the Lazaretto, a quarantine hospital where every ship entering the harbor from June to September had to stop while those aboard were checked for signs of infectious disease. In a city already known for its diversity by the mid-nineteenth century, the Lazaretto represented both openness to and fear of the outsider. This deep ambivalence, to change and to the other, forms the heart of Lazaretto (Harper, 2016), the sparkling new novel by Diane McKinney-Whetstone, who already has five acclaimed works of fiction to her credit.
The US Civil War has just ended. In the home of a well-respected midwife, a white attorney has brought his young black servant, Meda, to abort the child he has fathered on her. But the pregnancy is too far along for such a solution, and the child arrives that very night. The father takes the child, ordering the midwife to tell his servant that her daughter is dead. Distraught, Meda takes temporary refuge at a nearby orphanage as soon as she has recovered from childbirth. There she acts as a wet nurse to two newborn boys, whom she christens Bram and Lincoln after her hero, President Abraham Lincoln—assassinated on the same night as her own baby died. When she returns to her employer’s home, the boys come with her for part of every week. Meda raises them as brothers. As the boys grow older, they move back and forth between the affluent white community and the black community of Philadelphia, until a series of drastic events brings them to the Lazaretto. There old questions at last find answers.