The author of this engaging and well-researched historical novel is an Australian who has lived in New York and made an extensive study of nineteenth-century art and literature.
The central character in the drama is David Hosack, a real-life medical man who attended Alexander Hamilton after his duel and founded Bellevue Hospital and Columbia Medical School. He was a much-admired liberal thinker with ideas ahead of his times, though he never succeeded in finding the cause of the dreaded yellow fever.
The book centers on two momentous events: an outbreak of the fever and the building of the Croton River Aqueduct. Powerful politicians Mayor Van Ness and John Laidlaw, along with the ambitious and hopeful Irish newspaperman Eamonn Casey, use the city’s need for a source of clean water as a rallying cry. Hosack becomes a pawn in their devious games, and by disagreeing with them risks being totally discredited. In the end he is aided and his good reputation cleared through the efforts of his hardworking admiring assistant, Albert Dash, himself a victim of the killing plague.
Into the mix there is a romantic subplot as Virginia Casey, the Irishman’s daughter, falls increasingly in love with Albert, who has eyes only for the striking Vera, an aristocratic actress who, try as she might, can barely bring herself to help her friend Virginia perform her acts of charity among the unsavory but honest poor. Owing to the tutelage of Albert, Virginia becomes a competent nurse who helps Dr. Hosack battle the murderous yellow fever outbreak.
But perhaps the main character in the case is the backdrop, New York at the turn of the nineteenth century. The author has recreated the original Bowery and Wall Street, the polluted river and the teeming throngs of the sweating poor. He has painted a vivid portrait of life as it could have been in the Big Apple, in a rougher, wilder time. One has the sense that the city was destined to be the biggest and in some ways the best of all American cities, but there was a time when it struggled to expand its frontiers against great odds. Wood has brought that time to life.
“Only the most pious of Manhattan’s citizens braved the broiling heat…how could the mere prospect of hell impress a congregation convinced they knew its early reality – Manhattan in mid-July?”