A hundred years before Ellis Island became a processing center for immigrants wishing to enter the United States, Philadelphia had the Lazaretto, a quarantine hospital where every ship entering the harbor from June to September had to stop while those aboard were checked for signs of infectious disease. In a city already known for its diversity by the mid-nineteenth century, the Lazaretto represented both openness to and fear of the outsider. This deep ambivalence, to change and to the other, forms the heart of Lazaretto (Harper, 2016), the sparkling new novel by Diane McKinney-Whetstone, who already has five acclaimed works of fiction to her credit.
The US Civil War has just ended. In the home of a well-respected midwife, a white attorney has brought his young black servant, Meda, to abort the child he has fathered on her. But the pregnancy is too far along for such a solution, and the child arrives that very night. The father takes the child, ordering the midwife to tell his servant that her daughter is dead. Distraught, Meda takes temporary refuge at a nearby orphanage as soon as she has recovered from childbirth. There she acts as a wet nurse to two newborn boys, whom she christens Bram and Lincoln after her hero, President Abraham Lincoln assassinated on the same night as her own baby died. When she returns to her employers home, the boys come with her for part of every week. Meda raises them as brothers. As the boys grow older, they move back and forth among the affluent white community, the orphanage, and Medas mostly warm and welcoming friends and family, until a series of drastic events brings them to the Lazaretto. There old questions at last find answers.
C. P. Lesley is the author of six novels, including Legends of the Five Directions (The Golden Lynx, The Winged Horse, and The Swan Princess), a historical fiction series set in 1530s Russia, during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible. Find out more about her at http://www.cplesley.com.