Tuesday, June 16, 2009
What a great, great novella. Sharyn McCrumb's The Resurrection Man is part of a series of novellas gathered and edited by Ed McBain. The overall title of the books is Transgressions.
The Resurrection Man is historical fiction, not a mystery. The novella tells the story of Grandison Harris, a slave who functioned as a body snatcher for the medical college in Augusta, Georgia, in the 1850's.
At that time in Georgia, it was illegal to dissect human bodies. To teach their students, the doctors in the college used a "porter" whose main function was to steal already-buried African-American bodies for dissection.
This is the story of that porter and of those he knew and loved.
As with all McCrumb novels, this one is meticulously researched. It is filled with fascinating detail. McCrumb understands historical characters in a way no one else I've ever read understands them.
At one point, after the Civil War, Harris becomes a judge in South Carolina. He gives that up to return to Augusta to again be a porter at the medical college. The book explains his decision this way:
". . . the patronizing scorn of his own overseers kindled his own anger. They treated him like a simpleton, and he came to realize that he was merely a pawn in a game between white men, valued by neither side. It would have been one thing to have received a university education and then to have won the job. . . But to be handed the job only as a calculated insult to others--that made a mockery of his intelligence and skills."
In other words, Harris didn't like being given the job as a small-time judge just to rub it in to the defeated South. He'd rather be a porter instead.
Told with straight narration and just a few first-person sections, the story takes Harris though the rest of his life. The book goes from the time before Harris meets Dr. George Newton and Dr. Lewis Ford (who recruit him for the school), to the end of Harris' life at ninety-five.
The Resurrection Man reminds me again that straight narration of a powerful story is all it takes to make a great book. There are no tricks here. Just a simple story, and what a great story it is.