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Andrea Barrett – Ship Fever: Stories

November 6, 2009

130. Ship Fever: Stories by Andrea Barrett (1996)

Length: 256 pages
Genre: Short stories; a mix of historical and modern fiction.

Started: 24 October 2009
Finished: 24 October 2009

Where did it come from? The library booksale.
Why do I have it? It was mentioned in the “Further Reading” section of The Rough Guide to Evolution as being short fiction about science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. How could I resist?
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 12 September 2009.
Verdict? Keeper.

Science, history
are the backdrop; what matters
here are the people.

Summary: Ship Fever is a collection of stories (although the titular story is more of a novella) that revolve around science, particularly science in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the way that the scientific worldview affects the lives of the people who practice it, and the people who come afterward.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” is a story of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, and how his disillusionment with science is mirrored by the growing alienation between a professor and his wife. I thought this was an excellent opening story that set the tone for the entire volume quite well: they’re stories about science, but they’re not about science so much as the people doing to the science, and how that science can echo through time, and affect – or reflect – the lives of the people it touches.

“The English Pupil” focuses on the dying days of Carl Linnaeus, as he reflects over all of the eager young naturalists who died pursuing the passion that he instilled in them. This story was very sad, but also very interesting – I don’t think I’d ever learned about Linnaeus’s students, or what happened to them – but it’s no wonder that Barrett chose them as the subject of a story. Full of pathos, and very, very human.

“The Littoral Zone” is a story of memory and relationships and reconstruction, as a married couple think about the events that took them away from their first marriages and brought them together. It’s a story about the tiny threads of regret and sadness that linger even in what we would call a happy life, and the overall tone is almost melancholy. I did love that it was set at the same marine field station where I spent a summer during college, though.

“Rare Bird” is a story of a young woman in the 1760s, interested in science and natural history but kept from their pursuit by her gender. This was easily my favorite story, most likely because I had the easiest time identifying with the protagonist, and of all of the stories, it was the only one that I thought leaned more towards hope than bleakness.

“Soroche” involves a woman cast adrift within a family that doesn’t belong to her, and contrasts her lot with Jemmy Button, one of the native Fuegians who was aboard the Beagle with Darwin. As a story, or a character study, this one was excellently crafted and very intriguing. However, I felt like it had to stretch to draw the historical parallels, and so the message of the story wound up feeling more labored than it needed to be.

“Birds with No Feet” is the story of a young naturalist/collector who was working in the Malay Archipelago at the same time as Alfred Russell Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection contemporaneously with Darwin. I liked this story quite a bit, mostly for the glances it gave us of Wallace, who is a fascinating figure, and has been largely – and unfairly – eclipsed by Darwin in the history of science.

“The Marburg Sisters” tells the tale of two estranged sisters returning home to care for their dying father. It’s the only story that doesn’t particularly involve the history of science, and therefore felt a bit out of place. It was also my least favorite; I didn’t particularly care for either Rose or Bianca, and the inconsistent use of the first-person plural bugged me.

“Ship Fever” is set during the typhus epidemic in Canada following the influx of Irish immigrants during the Great Potato Famine. A young and idealistic doctor is called to help at the quarantine station, only to find conditions worse than he expected and deteriorating rapidly, with no guarantee that help is coming, or that the city he calls home will remain unaffected. Harrowing and thoroughly engrossing.

Overall Review and Recommendation: This is the first of Barrett’s work I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Her prose is lovely, striking just the right balance between economy and sparseness, and oftentimes cutting to the bone with a single well-crafted phrase. Her characterization, even in the limited space of a short story, is rich and complex, and she’s capable of evoking a surprising amount of emotion in the same short period.

This book probably requires a certain mood to really enjoy – the tone of most of the stories is certainly stark, if not outrightly bleak, and by the time I finished it, I felt like I’d made several passes through the emotional wringer. Still, each of the stories, even the short ones, had a certain heft, a certain gravity to it, and in sum, they added up to a thoroughly compelling read. 4 out of 5 stars.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Puss Reboots, Rather Be Reading, A Reader’s Journal (1), (2)
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: For thirty years, until he retired, my husband stood each fall in front of his sophomore genetics class and passed out copies of Gregor Mendel’s famous paper on the hybridization of edible peas.

Cover Thoughts: Peas! Mendel’s peas! I think the old school botanical illustration, the signature-like font for the author’s name, and the muted color palette all fit this volume perfectly. I can easily see a non-biologist going “what is that plant and what does it have to do with ships?”, though.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 51: “Erika Moorhead, Ruby remembers. Talking about the tensile strength of byssus threads.” – a collection of silky filaments by which certain mollusks attach themselves to rocks.
    .
  • p. 59: “A handsome house set in the gently rolling Kent landscape a few miles outside the city of London; the sun just set over blue squill and beech trees newly leafed.” – A small bulbous European plant (Scilla verna) having fragrant blue flowers.
    .
  • p. 77: “Ships are packed along the waterfront, their sails furled and their banners drooping; here a wherry, there a cutter, darts between them and the stairs.” – a light rowboat for one person; skiff.
    .
  • p. 107: “Wallace’s ship, he knew, had caught fire through the spontaneous combustion of kegs of balsam-capivi, but their own fire had no such exotic cause.” – an oleoresin obtained from several tropical, chiefly South American trees belonging to the genus Copaifera, of the legume family, used chiefly in varnishes and lacquers, for removing old oil varnish from or for brightening oil paintings, and formerly in medicine in the treatment of certain mucous-membrane conditions.
    .
  • p. 119: “It was Alec’s good fortune to discover they savored cockroaches, and for him to be aboard a battered old barkentine that swarmed with them.” – a sailing vessel having three or more masts, square-rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft-rigged on the other masts.
    .
  • p. 134: “The athanor, the furnace of transmutation, was shaped like a giant egg.” – digester furnace with a self-feeding fuel supply contained in a towerlike contrivance, ensuring a constant, durable temperature.
    .
  • p. 142: “She left behind a blue hassock embroidered with swans, several sets of expensive sheets, a cabinet full of cosmetics, and a refrigerator full of food.” – a thick, firm cushion used as a footstool or for kneeling; ottoman.
    .
  • p. 203: “Then, as now, a fleet of bateaux with great white sails had carried lumber from Findlay Grant’s sawmill at Montmorency Falls to the ships lined up along the coves.” – a small, flat-bottomed rowboat used on rivers.
    .
  • p. 235: “Someone said, in French, a sentence that in English defined nephritis associated with dropsy and albuminuria as Bright’s disease.” – the presence of albumin in the urine. (Oh, duh.)
    .
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8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2009 8:10 am

    Thank you for this review! A book of stories about scientists? Sign me up. I’m not usually a big fan of short stories, but this subject matter has me very interested :)

    • November 8, 2009 1:35 pm

      ABM – I’m not a huge short fiction reader either, but Barrett’s very good at it, and I think each of the stories is exactly as long as it needs to be. Plus, science! I hope you get a chance to check it out!

  2. November 6, 2009 10:48 am

    I hadn’t heard of this one before, but it sounds amazing. I’m all for short writers who can develop fully-realized characters. Alas, they’re all too rare.

    • November 8, 2009 1:37 pm

      Memory – From what I understand after a little wikipedia research, several of the characters who pop up in this volume are actually characters from her other books. I’m sure that made it easier for her to write them – she already knew them – but it also makes it doubly impressive that she re-introduced them in such a way that I never would have known they weren’t entirely new.

  3. November 7, 2009 1:28 pm

    I have this book on my TBR pile. I don’t even remember why I have it anymore, but your review makes me think I need to read it sooner rather than later!

    • November 8, 2009 1:39 pm

      Kailana – It won the National Book Award in ’96, maybe that’s why you have it? In any case, whenever you do get around to it, I hope you like it as much as I did!

  4. November 8, 2009 7:33 pm

    Great! Barrett is one of my favorite authors, try The Voyage of the Narwhal.

    • November 10, 2009 9:02 pm

      Gavin – I’ll keep an eye out for it; I’ve already got The Air We Breathe in the TBR pile, although I didn’t realize that it was the same author until after I read this one!

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