Two brothers are at odds in a novel set in 1796 Newburyport, Massachusetts,
as an arriving ship is placed under quarantine, all aboard either sickened or
dying of a virulent fever. When physician Giles Wiggins announces the quarantine
pending further investigation, he incurs the wrath of his merchant half-brother,
Enoch Sumner, owner of the vessel, and their mother, Miranda. Giles’s medical
training is informal, that of a surgeon’s assistant on board a ship during the
war with Britain, a conflict that enabled Enoch to build his fortune. Miranda,
to put it kindly, is a “reclusive scold with a volatile temper” whose comfort
lies with her older son. The two reside at Enoch’s High Street mansion, where
the man’s hedonistic excesses are a constant source of aggravation for his
Regardless of the personal preferences of individuals concerned with the potential damage to their livelihoods, Smolens portrays the growing panic and horrifying details of the fast-moving fever that fells even the most innocent of victims, including the harbormaster’s young daughter. The onslaught of disease recognizes neither class nor wealth, carried to shore by shipmen in spite of quarantine, spreading death in their wake: “The only thing that spreads faster than an epidemic is the word of one.”
The physical damage is swift and deadly: victims suffer chills, fever, vomiting, and an ugly death that leaves survivors first in shock, then panic as the nightmare spreads. The profitable industry of a thriving port pales in the face of nature’s assault, the venal actions of the greedy offensive in light of the impending pestilence. The hubris of the powerful has no currency, fervent prayer a futile defense. Indeed, the advantages of privilege undermine efforts to control the spread of disease throughout the port, from the stealthy boats that elude the quarantine to deliver goods to Enoch Sumner to the appearance of his son, Samuel, or a Frenchwoman, Marie de Montpellier, rescued from the sea and welcomed into Sumner’s home. Sumner’s mother, Miranda, fervently believes the contagion is an affliction of the poor and morally inferior, deluded that wealth provides insulation from the scourge.
As more townspeople die—predominantly the poor—medicine to relieve their suffering becomes critical. But somehow all the medicines have disappeared, a severe shortage causing even more suffering. When a businessman approaches a select group of leaders with an offer to provide that very medicine at an extortionist price, the men have no choice but to pay. While Enoch is convinced that his mother and Samuel, newly returned from Paris, are slowly poisoning him, that drama takes second place to Wiggins’s efforts at the pest house. With an unexpected romance blooming between Wiggins and Marie de Montpellier, events take an ominous turn with a sea chase to rescue the crates of medicine from their hiding place, justice brought—at least temporarily—to the miscreants. Meanwhile, Enoch’s family dysfunction reaches critical mass.
Smolens captures the horror, the devastation and the grief of Newburyport in the throes of pestilence, a family at odds and the class differences endemic to the port city in a novel rich in history, human conflict and the healing balm of love on troubled souls.