My first book for March was a little historical novel called The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker by Cynthia DeFelice. It has good reviews, and I thought it might be one I could suggest for my son, since he has to read some historical fiction for his language arts class. I don't know that I liked it quite as much as the reviewers did, but certainly I didn't see anything that I didn't like. It was just a nice, solid, little story, maybe a little simpler than what I am in the mood to read right now.
The novel takes place in New England, 1849, and is the story of a young boy who has lost his entire family to "consumption." A neighbor tells him of a "cure" that involves exhuming the first member of the family to die of the disease; however, by this time, everyone in Lucas' family is dead. Racked with guilt, Lucas wanders into a town, where he becomes an apprentice to a man who is the town's doctor/dentist/barber/undertaker. The rest of the story focuses on the struggle between superstition and knowledge that must have been a defining characteristic of the practice of medicine in the 19th century.
DeFelice does a good job of working three approaches to early medical care into her story. On the one hand, there are the superstitious townspeople who are so desperate for a cure to save their remaining family members that they will do gruesome things to the corpses of other loved ones from their family on the authority of rumors and promises that the "cure" worked in far-off places. A couple of incidents show the nearly-ridiculous lengths these people are willing to go to because of their need to have faith in something -- ANYTHING -- in the face of a terminal diagnosis.
Then there is the half-Indian woman Lucas spends some time with. She is amused by the superstitions of the townspeople, and yet some of her methods would seem just as silly to us today (like cobwebs for bleeding). She is the character that represents what I guess I would call "practical" medicine -- she knows all the herbs that can be made into teas or poultices, and most of them probably did have some actual medical effect. But she is an outcast among the townspeople, who consider her a witch.
Finally, there is the doctor that Lucas is apprenticed to. He keeps meticulous records of the weather and of his patients, looking for any patterns that might emerge to indicate a cause-effect relationship. His sister (who lives with him as housekeeper) insists on hygiene. The doctor has sympathy for the families who believe in the "cure," but he makes it clear to Lucas that it is mere superstition that makes them do what they are doing. However, he also admits that he doesn't have any answer and that there's nothing he can do for the patients with consumption. At the end of the book, he has acquired a microscope, and he and Lucas are being introduced to the world of "animacules."
I read a non-fiction book several years ago about medicine in the 19th century. It's shocking to think how little they knew of what we take for granted today -- how disease is transmitted, how to prevent that transmission, the role that clean drinking water plays in health (that book emphasized the terrible cholera epidemics of the 19th century), even basic cleaniness. I think DeFelice's little book is probably a pretty good way to help kids be aware that things weren't always the way they are now and that people routinely died from diseases that we don't even take that seriously anymore.
Oh, one last thing -- the book has enough of a "gross" factor that I think my son will get into it. Usually I like to read while I'm having my lunch at work -- not this book!! There are rather graphic descriptions of graverobbing and an amputation scene (with no anesthesia, of course) that would have turned my stomach if I let myself think about it too much. It's not that DeFelice goes out of her way to be gross; grossness just seems to go with the territory of 19th-century life, particularly that of a doctor!
Postscript: My son actually did NOT like the book, precisely because of the gross factor! He read five chapters, then quit. Oh, well, shows what I know!