In 1865 Philadelphia, a young woman gives birth to a child she can never claim. The lovely Meda, a servant in the Benin household, is brought to the midwife in hopes that she might abort the baby, but instead gives birth to a child that’s immediately taken away. Sylvia, the young assistant midwife is stunned because not only is this her first delivery, she can’t believe that the midwife would so readily turn the child over to Tom Benin, Meda’s employer and the child’s father.
Meda finds comfort in two baby boys that she’s immediately becomes attached to when she begins volunteering at the local orphanage, while Sylvia puts that dreadful day behind her and eventually goes on to become the head nurse at Lazaretto, the quarantine hospital. The heart of the story lies in the love that Meda has for the two babies that are raised as brothers, Linc and Bram, so named by Meda in respect to Abraham Lincoln.
Where Linc is soft and graceful, Bram is hard and sturdy. As Linc studies piano under Mrs. Benin’s tutelage, Bram explores Meda’s world. There he meets the affable Buddy, Meda’s brother, and is introduced to the world of poker and learns to use his hands. Those hands come in handy when Linc finds himself in trouble with the new head of the orphanage. His brother’s fights are his fights and when Bram steps in to handle what Linc cannot, the brothers find themselves on the run, forced to leave behind Philadelphia, Meda and Buddy.
Things come to a head when, years later, the lively cast of characters find themselves at Lazaretto for a wedding, but instead are quarantined. Suddenly, members of upper class society that would never make their way down to Fitzwater Street are mingling and not necessarily enjoying it. In Philadelphia, they’re all subject to racism, which unites them, but given a chance to escape it, they make class distinctions of their own. McKinney-Whetstone explains it like this:
These were trifles back home, where their differences receded in the face of them all being black in Philadelphia. Though in the confined space of the boat, their differences were dramatic and their personalities were popping like firecrackers and Carl warned that their discord would surely make them capsize.Secrets are exposed, new love is revealed and old loves are rekindled as the party settles in for the long haul. In Vergie, Sylvia’s younger cousin, readers meet a woman so light she could pass for white but would sooner die than do so and is willing to fight anyone that claims she’s not black. Bram is willing to pass for black if it means Vergie will accept him. And Splotch, a card player that’s hated Bram since he was a child, is infatuated with Vergie, but would kill Bram in a heartbeat if Buddy wasn’t standing in his way.
The characters, the narratives, the story line – I honestly can’t think of any part of Lazaretto that I didn’t love. It’s rare that I read a book more than once, but there are a lot of characters and it was important to me that I get everyone placed just right in my head, so I re-read this. I also tore through it the first time because I was so excited to get something new from the author, so the second time around, I was able to savor it, make sure that it was just as good as I thought it was. And it was. Diane McKinney-Whetstone never disappoints.
Published: April 2016
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.
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