First Sentence: In the dream, Elizabeth Blackwell sits opposite Jane Avery’s deathbed.
Reporter Walt Whitman tries to defend his friend Lena Stowe against murder charges of her husband Abraham. After he fails, Lea is hanged, but Whitman is determined to clear both her, and her husband’s, name. With the help of Henry Saunders, the two men enter the world of resurrection men who steal bodies for medical colleges to expose the real criminals.
The opening certainly captures one’s attention, both in the fact of women training to be doctors in 1943 and the events of the story themselves.
Most know Whitman as a poet. However, it is fascinating to learn more of his history, life, sexuality, and faith. He ends up being an interesting protagonist, with a wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, along with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first women in America to earn an M.D. However, it is the young Azariah Smith who nearly steals the story—“I let you teach me how to build a fire,” Azariah says,” now you got to let me teach you how to stay alive.”.
Sanders provides excellent descriptions. While many can be very graphic, he also creates a strong sense of place—“The cemetery surrounds the cathedral—headstones jut like crooked teeth out of the gray, unyielding ground.” Fortunately, there are also occasional flashes of humor—“The short March day has already lost its light, flickered away, hurtled toward darkness. Now that is a titch melodramatic, he thinks.”
Sander’s New York is one of poverty, corruption, cruelty, and death. It is a hard place where some, a few, are trying to bring knowledge and enlightenment.
“Speakers of the Dead” is not an easy book to read due to its content. It is, however, well done. Do read the author’s notes at the end.
SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD (Hist Mys-Walt Whitman-NYC-1843) – G+
J. Aaron Sanders – 1st Book
Penguin Group – March 2016