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Ship Fever - Stories by Andrea Barrett

The eight short stories and one novella in this collection are linked by the author’s interest in science. Characters from the past include great names such as Linnaeus, Darwin, Wallace and Mendel. Some of the stories are modern, some historical. The author approaches her topics at an angle: a day in Linnaeus’ old age in which he imagines he’s back with his favorite pupils; a young doctor who works at a quarantine station in nineteenth-century Canada; an American naturalist who meets Arthur Wallace on his expeditions.

When I revisited these stories I found some of them still lodged in my brain from when I first read the book, some twenty years ago. In my grey matter there lingers an eighteenth-century woman who decides to test the contemporary belief that swallows live underwater until spring, a boat that passes over a river swarming with bedding, planks and straw thrown overboard from newly arrived ships and a man who brings back the first birds of paradise his country has ever seen, only to find it uninterested and in the throes of a civil war.

The stories:

The Behavior of the Hawkweeds, Mendel’s other plant, one that didn’t cooperate.

The English Pupil, Linnaeus as an old man losing his grip on reality.

The Littoral Zone, a tale of scientist lovers who spoiled their lives.

Rare Bird, those underwater swallows.

Soroche, a woman meets a man whose great-great-grandfather was Darwin’s guide in the Andes.

Birds with no Feet, those birds of paradise.

The Marburg Sisters, brilliant modern scientists. Was their mother a witch?

Ship Fever, a devastating depiction of what became of Irish emigrants fleeing the potato famine.

These are plainly told stories, with solid narration and well-built scenes. The author has a talent for locating big subjects and tough situations in vividly described places. The characters are complex, intelligent and often unfulfilled and unhappy, but, don’t despair, not always.

If you like old-fashioned story-telling and are fascinated by what people used to believe, this book is for you.

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