Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Pesthouse

I have a morbid fascination with books that describe contagious diseases. Probably it's not good for me to read them, though. After my first decade of motherhood with two children that got really, really sick from catching every single germ that hit town, I still have some paranoid habits, like carrying antibacterial wipes in my car and purse and requiring everyone with me to use them. And I do this despite the fact that adenoid surgery at the age of six helped my first-born to actually get through a cold without two weeks of ensuing sinus infection and coughing all night, and getting older actually helped my second-born to catch a cold without the same kind of two weeks. It's been a couple of years (knock on wood) since I had to use the nebulizer. Those of you who still are in those days of being up at night with a child who can't stop coughing and then sterilizing all the equipment with vinegar and water and then going out to buy more of those drugs that make the kid's a hard time. But it passes, and now I have kids who actually have immune systems that work.

Mothers get scarred for life, though. So when I saw The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace, at the library, I had to check it out. And it's a two-for-one pleasure-- not only is it about contagious disease, but it's a post-apocalyptic novel! In fact, the contagious disease part is a smaller part of the story than I would have expected from the title. (It's even a smaller part than it was in Ann Benson's The Burning Road, which I loved.) This story begins in Ferrytown, where you can get across a big river (the Mississippi?) to continue your journey west. The characters, Margaret and Franklin, start their journey at the Ferrytown pesthouse, because it turns out that the sickness that sent Margaret there is not fatal after all. The sign of being assigned to the pesthouse is the shaving of all body hair. Once the hair has grown back enough, the person is presumed to be well enough to go out into the world.

Most of The Pesthouse is about the journey of two characters through the new American wilderness, rife with bandits and other dangers. They make it through, in part because of judicious use of Margaret's baldness and then Franklin's decision to shave himself to make himself appear to be contagious. But when they get to what they thought was their destination, they realize that their picture of the world was not complete. The charm of the book is the completion of this picture of the American west. I always like the description of something from our time after the apocalypse:

The road, indeed, seemed built--by how many laborers and over how many years? at what immense cost? --to take great weights. Its now damaged surface, much degraded by the weather and time, comprised mostly of chips of stone, loose grit, and sticky black rubble, which only the toughest of plants--knotweed, sagebrush, and thistle--had succeeded in penetrating.

I guess we give the author artistic license with his sentence fragment there.

One of the things that happens to Margaret is that she makes it safely to a place called The Ark. Margaret is given work, food, and a bed by the people who run the Ark, "Finger Baptists" who require that anyone entering rid themselves of anything metal. Eventually, though, Franklin and Margaret escape from the Ark when it is raided by bandits who had earlier kidnapped Franklin. They make their own way with a baby they have rescued along the way, and they create their own life: "they no longer felt defeated by America, as most emigrants had on the journey out, driven eastward by their failings."

I guess that for my second decade of motherhood I should try to be less driven by my previous failure to protect my children from disease, and take the warnings about the danger of antibacterial wipes and antibacterial soap more seriously. Now that we all have functioning immune systems, we should use milder soap, and probably fewer wipes, in an effort to delay the apocalypse.

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