The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn 2013
I found this book to be a powerful and disturbing read. Guinn transports us back to the beginnings of medical education when the means of learning anatomy depended on dissection of bodies. The procurement of those bodies posed a dilemma for schools educational needs versus their financial means. In addition, local beliefs and customs in proper care and burial of the dead raised further issues.
Some research took me first to a review of Guinn’s book by Nelson Sims on May 20, 2014 at Nelson Sims Review . Sims describes in detail the historical background of this novel whose major character is Nemo . Nemo is bought as a slave and jointly owned by seven members of the faculty of a fictitious South Carolina Medical College, given the job of porter and general handyman, but used for the procurement of bodies becoming a “resurrectionist.”
Searching for confirmation of Sims historical research, I found an article by Bess Lovejoy “Meet Grandison Harris, the Grave Robber Enslaved (and then Employed) By the Georgia Medical College” at smithsonianmag.org, May 6, 2014. This is the story told in Guinn’s historical novel which also includes a new problem as Dr. Jacob Thacker, a fictitious modern medical school employee found guilty of addiction and removed to public relations from serving patients is caught up in dealing with a scandal of discovered bones.
Sims comments in his review: “Guinn writes Nemo as a living, breathing morality conflict. The book’s most memorable passages depict the contemptuous relationship with his community that Nemo’s practice earns him. Accused of selling his soul to The Devil by a local preacher, Nemo offers up a response to raise chill bumps:
‘I could tell you, that, reverend. But I won’t. Would be a lie. Only devil I know is white as a sheet, and yes, he walks around in the broad daylight. I works for him and you works for him.” He pressed the Bible into the reverend’s hand and clasped it. “So maybe you and me are closer than you think.’ ”
I would add that the morality conflict should be acknowledged by all the other characters such as those of the school’s administration who live by the Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means. Sims does not mention Guinn’s enigmatic suggestion that Thacker may even be related to the African Nemo. It is never settled, but speaks to the whole point of race and an underclass that our white privileged society still claims today.
I found the ending too pat. Both the book’s ending for Nemo and that of Jacob Thacker tie up loose ends in a style of writing that lacks the emotional strength of this novel and its hard subject matter. It was as if Guinn, too, found himself caught in a dilemma of the cruelties of our history of racism and the present existence of it. I hope you will consider reading the book, but will also read the Smithsonian article that tells the fortunes of the real Grandison Harris. He was a slave, medical educator, and black man caught in the racial injustice that plagues our nation. Since The Civil War, we have seen improvements in this national inequity, only to discover that the hatred and the structures of injustice are still thriving.