Servants of the Map

 

by Andrea Barrett (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002)

 

((This column was first published in ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

 

 

If you drive to the Adirondacks through Watertown along Route 3, just after you pass through Tupper Lake, you come to the grounds of a large hospital. Today I suspect that few who pass that hospital realize that it was once in the early years of the 20th century before the discovery of sulfa-drugs and then penicillin one of the major national centers for the treatment of tuberculosis, then more often known as consumption.

 

In those times the fresh outdoor air of the mountains, good food and rest constituted the only effective treatment for the hacking coughs, the terrible weakness and the bloody sputum that characterized the disease.

 

Andrea Barrett recalls those days for us in her novella, "The Cure," one of the six historically-based stories in her newest book, SERVANTS OF THE MAP. I found this story especially effecting as a good friend, Gordon Meade, had first stayed at the hospital as a patient and then served as its medical director.

 

Here she describes the thoughts of one of those patients:

 

"As he gazes out the window, Martin, in his room at Elizabeth's house, gives up all pretense of sleep and squirms against his pillows until his head and shoulders are raised and his knees sloped sufficiently to support his writing board. Next to him are several pencils and a tablet of paper. Although this is strictly forbidden -- one is not to read during the afternoon rest hours, not to chat, not to write, not even to turn the pages of a magazine -- Martin has decided to write a letter.

 

"Dear Mother, he begins.

 

"He will write, he thinks, about the departure of Mrs. Temple, whom he liked despite her lack of humor and a tendency to chatter. Her hands, when she rubbed his back and chest with liniment, were both gentle and strong. She never fussed when he coughed blood. She could change his bed without getting him up, rolling the sheets and blankets into slim flattened tubes along one flank, then gently easing him over the ridge and onto the clean linen. Elizabeth, so scrupulous about every aspect of her house, will surely hire someone equally skilled, but it won't matter to him.

 

"Today, he writes.

 

"Shouldn't he be writing the truth? What is really happening to him, what it feels like. He felt such comfort, as a boy, unfolding his secrets to his mother. And such isolation when, after his father died and he became sick himself, she stopped listening and insisted on his health.

 

"He should say that, he could start with that. Or with the disturbing sound that is filtering up to him now, causing his pencil to pause -- the sound of the lidded brass containers boiling on the kitchen stove. Stripped of their pasteboard liners, and of the bits of lung and life which he and his fellow boarders cough up, the nine apple-sized cuspidors clonk gently together. With the strange, upsetting acuity that has come to him in these last two weeks, he can hear them rolling, bumping each other, as he can hear the damp tea leaves falling from Livvie's hand onto the wooden floor, the soft swish-swish as she spreads them around, and the crisper noise of them being gathered, along with the dust that must not be allowed to rise, into neat piles by the broom.

 

"He will write to his mother, he thinks, that the dull collisions of the cuspidors boiling reminds him of the eggs she boiled by the dozen, and tried to force him to eat, during the year before she finally let him come here. She would not believe he was sick; his father was dead, he could not be sick too. If he was sick he would lose his job, their new neighbors would despise them, they'd have to move yet again. If she didn't believe it, why did she keep showing up at his bedroom door with a bowl lined with strips of buttered toast, onto which she'd cracked the eggs?

 

"He will write that he came here too late. That he is dying. Later she'll want to know that he knew the truth.

 

"Everyone knows, he thinks. Maybe not Andrew, who shares his mother's ability to rebuff unpleasant facts -- but certainly Elizabeth and Mrs. Temple, and probably his fellow boarders too. They know what will happen once he's gone. What's left of him will be sealed up, sent home on the train to his family; no concern to anyone here. But some of the boarders will flee the house on the day his room is cleaned and disinfected, spending hours walking briskly through the woods. Others will pace the hallways, both watching and trying not to watch as the walls and woodwork and floors and ceiling of his room are washed and painted with carbolic acid, as the curtains and bedclothes are taken away to be boiled and every smallest item that once was his is steamed or burned. He has himself, on similar occasions, both walked the halls and walked the woods.

 

"Surely he should explain some of this to his mother. She kept him from coming here early, when he might still have recovered. As his aunt, who swooped down with her two loud sons and, on the pretext of comforting his mother, settled her family into his house, has kept him from returning home to die. Once she'd grasped the nature of his illness, she'd convinced his mother to urge him to stay in the mountains. Too much of a risk to her boys, she said; too awkward to explain his case to the neighbors. Better to wait until he was wholly cured. Together they have stranded him here, among strangers.

 

"He might blame them, or forgive them. He might describe what it feels like inside his chest. Instead his hand writes, as it always does, The weather continues to be fine, and I am feeling much improved."

 

In this as in her other stories, Ms. Barrett has made a near-perfect connection between history and fiction. Here she speaks of this connection: "Although the main characters and situations in these stories are invented, all grew from a foundation in fact. Among the historical characters in the fringes are William Bartram, Charles Darwin, Henry Godwin-Austen, Asa Gray, Joseph Hooker, James Hutton, Charles Lesueur, William Maclure, William Murray, Robert Owen, Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Say, Johann Scheuchzer, John Cleves Symmes, Godfrey Vigne, and William Wells. Excellent guides, every one."

 

But her stories do not derive their power from history; rather, they are stories about highly original characters placed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The title story, "Servants of the Map," is about a surveyor-cartographer in India, slowly growing away from his family at home. "The Forest" tells of the chance association of a beautiful young woman and an aged Polish scientist, her life beginning, his ending. In "Theories of Rain" another young woman comes to accept the restriction of her role in society. "Two Rivers" is about a school teacher's turn away from paleontology to instruction of the deaf. And "The Mysteries of Ubiquitin" describes how a woman scientist grows beyond the interests of her condescending partner.

 

We are honored to have Andrea Barrett a neighbor at the University of Rochester. I found this book to every bit as good as her earlier Ship Fever that won the National Book Award for fiction in 1996.-- Gerry Rising