Sunday, December 11, 2005

Those Who Fail to Learn From History Are Doomed to Repeat It

These days, I do most of my reading during my commute. To finish Hosack's Folly, however, I designated a couple of hours yesterday, and sat in my "library" and finished it. I am a sucker for historical novels -- actually, it is rare that a "contemporary" novel will entice me -- and am fond of those set in the 19th Century in particular.

This is a deeply researched novel about a real person, David Hosack. Hosack was, as a young man, the doctor who attended Alexander Hamilton during and after his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Hosack went on to found Bellevue Hospital (for the purpose of the quarantine of yellow fever victims), as well as the Columbia College of Physicians and the first Botanical Garden in New York.

Hosack talked the pols into founding Bellevue after a particularly virulent yellow fever outbreak in 1814.

This book prompted the d'Tocqueville paraphrase above for a couple of reasons. For one, a main plot element in the book is the efforts of the title character, Hosack, to prevent a yellow fever epidemic in the Manhattan of 1824. At that time in history, according to the afterward, they didn't know what caused the spread of yellow fever, but they did know how to minimize its spread, once an outbreak occurred.

As with so many historical novels, I believe this one to be timely, in light of the current concerns over the possible pandemic of avian flu.

In Hosack's Folly, the pols both foil Hosack's initial efforts to quarantine the port when the first few yellow fever cases occur -- quarantine is bad for business, as well as use the outbreak later to distract the public from other more embarrassing events for the pols.

This latter plot element clearly articulated something that has been bothering me about the Bush Administration's various press releases about the dangers of the avian flu and all of its new and improved efforts to protect its fellow Americans.

Fool Me Once, Shame on You, Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

Since it has become pretty clear that at best the Bush camp shared bad information with the public as a justification for the invasion of Iraq (and at worst, lied repeatedly and knowingly about the WMDs), my trust in anything they say has been seriously compromised.

Followed by the Katrina response by the same administration and the collateral finger-pointing, I take everything I hear about it, particularly if it is labeled as coming from the feds -- as opposed as being planted by the feds -- with a large dose of salt.

It is not that I disbelieve that the avian flu is a serious and very real health issue/threat, but rather that I tend to think that the Administration's attention to the issue is driven not by a genuine desire to protect you and me from an epidemic, but rather to get our attention away from this whole pesky Middle East situation.

My Brush With Politics and Politicians

The other thing I really enjoyed in Hosack's Folly was the depiction of backroom politics in 1820's Manhattan. I enjoyed it because it seemed as though nothing has changed all that much in the intervening 185 years.

My brush with politics was in San Francisco in the early 1990's, but nothing has changed much from my view. The most disappointing thing for me was learning that even the "good guys" were for sale, and had to be if they had anything but the lowest of aspirations.

This foray of mine into the ranks of what Willie Brown deemed "panty-waste politicians" convinced me of two things above all. 1. That to get to as elevated an office as President, a politician must sell his soul many, many times over; and 2. That self-interest always predominates over the public interest in the mind of any successful politician.

Taste It, Smell It

If you take writing classes, one of the recurrent messages is "show, don't tell". Gillen D'Arcy Wood does a masterful job of this in Hosack's Folly, which is his first novel. D'Arcy Wood is a historian by training, and really makes the Manhattan of past come to life in all of its stinking, dusty, sweaty glory.

If you are like me and have a strong but oft thwarted desire to romanticize the past, then the depiction of a summer in Manhattan without air conditioning, pest control, running water or sewer systems will bring you back to earth in a big hurry.

This is a great effort for a first novel, and I hope it is the first of many from this author.

Now available in paperback:


Blogger Skip said...

I read your review of the book and found myself in agreement with your opinions regarding polticians. It is a sad situation when our leaders have to sell themselves to the highester bidders from special interest groups to gain the money necessary to run for election. On the other hand, what are your opinions regarding people who don't vote?

2:11 PM  

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