Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

Returning to my historical fiction roots, today I present a story from post-civil war Philadelphia and the people who built a small black community there.  Diane McKinney-Whetstone has created an intriguing story, full of historical detail and moments to ponder in


Opening at Lincoln’s assassination, we meet Meda, a young black woman in labor and the midwife’s assistant, Sylvia, a young white woman.  When the child is taken from Meda by the father, and he orders that she be told it was stillborn, Sylvie is shocked, and haunted.  This sets the scene for these two women to present this story with their alternating points of view.

What emerges is a series of studies and moments, interconnected by that night, for Meda and Sylvie. Small moments that show people living their lives, relaxing and toiling, mixed with other moments that graphically and poignantly presented struggles, prejudices and the many intrigues that were in play.  I wanted more from Sylvie and Meda – their relationship as friends and more was certainly intriguing enough to warrant more words and pages, as well as a more satisfying conclusion to the more titillating moments.

What I’m left with is moments of prose and description that are vivid and often poignant, darker scenes that highlight the dramatic divisions in the society – the black community with lives supported by and ruled by the existence of the Lazaretto Quarantine hospital, removed from the power brokers or even choices of self-determination are limited.  There’s a sense of ‘different place, same issues’ that emerges for many of the characters we meet: the time for jubilant celebrations about the promise of freedom have quieted, and the reality of the attitudes haven’t changed for most of the people in power.

A bit of unevenness in the plotting – moments of tension are easy to spot, and there were fewer moments where I truly wondered what would come next. What did work well was the insets of life, those quiet moments that allow characters to just be and exist. There were no moments of “it should have been” from the author, she’s presenting a story that gives readers the feeling of being in the moment, seeing the time and the people as they were with all of their scars and warts exposed, and allows an entry into a moment in time that will encourage thought.  Not a perfect read, but engaging and intriguing even as I hoped for a few more pages and moments to truly give Sylvie and Meda the time they deserved.

Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone

Title: Lazaretto
Author: Diane McKinney-Whetstone
Genre: African-American, Civil War Era, Historical Fiction
Published by: Harper
ISBN: 0062126962
Published on: 12 April, 2016
Source: Publisher Via Edelweiss
Pages: 352
Audio Length: 12 Hours: 33 minutes
Rated: three-half-stars
Heat: One Flame

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Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s nationally bestselling novel, Tumbling, immersed us into Philadelphia’s black community during the Civil Rights era, and she returns to the city in this new historical novel about a cast of 19th-century characters whose colorful lives intersect at the legendary Lazaretto—America’s first quarantine hospital.

Isolated on an island where two rivers meet, the Lazaretto quarantine hospital is the first stop for immigrants who wish to begin new lives in Philadelphia. The Lazaretto’s black live-in staff forge a strong social community, and when one of them receives permission to get married on the island the mood is one of celebration, particularly since the white staff—save the opium-addicted doctor—are given leave for the weekend. On the eve of the ceremony, a gunshot rings out across the river. A white man has fired at a boat carrying the couple’s friends and family to the island, and the captain is injured. His life lies in the hands of Sylvia, the Lazaretto’s head nurse, who is shocked to realize she knows the patient.

Intertwined with the drama unfolding at the Lazaretto are the fates of orphan brothers. When one brother commits a crime to protect the other, he imperils both of their lives—and the consequences ultimately deliver both of them to the Lazaretto.

In this masterful work of historical fiction, Diane McKinney-Whetstone seamlessly transports us to Philadelphia in the aftermath of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, beautifully evoking powerful stories of love, friendship and humanity amid the vibrant black community that flourished amid the troubled times.

A copy of this title was provided via Publisher Via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.

About Diane McKinney-Whetstone

The author of the critically acclaimed novels Tumbling, Tempest Rising, Blues Dancing, Leaving Cecil Street, and Trading Dreams at Midnight, Diane McKinney-Whetstone is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s Literary Award for Fiction, which she won twice. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband. For more on Diane McKinney-Whetstone please visit her website or follow her on Twitter.