In five previous novels, Diane McKinney-Whetstone has painted a vivid portrait of 20th-century black life in Philadelphia—from the Jazz Age in her first book, Tumbling, right up to the 1990s in Blues Dancing. With her sixth novel, Lazaretto, McKinney-Whetstone turns to the 19th century.
The book opens on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, when a pregnant maid named Meda visits a midwife who “had become well known in the whispered circles of rich white men as a viable solution to the consequence of their indiscretions.” The midwife makes a fateful decision regarding Meda’s baby that will reverberate for the rest of the novel.
This is just one of many deceptions in a book filled with characters who may not be what they seem. Consider orphans Linc and Bram, both named after the beloved fallen president. They tug at the heartstrings of Meda, and, when they grow older, make a fatal mistake, forcing them to flee Philadelphia. They return, however, and that’s when Lazaretto really hits its stride: The quarantine hospital that lends the book its title becomes the site of a much-anticipated wedding, bringing many of the characters together for what is supposed to be a joyous event. But events beyond the staff’s control interrupt the wedding, harshly reminding McKinney-Whetstone’s African-American characters of their place in the social hierarchy.
There may be a bit too much melodrama in Lazaretto for some readers, and at times the years seem to fly by too quickly. Overall, though, McKinney-Whetstone’s sympathetic characters and historical touches (one character eats a “king’s breakfast of peppered cow’s brain and cornbread”) more than compensate. Meda, at one point, laments “the tragedy of a life with no history at all.” Once again, McKinney-Whetstone has managed to bring to life a wide range of characters whose triumphs and tribulations would never show up in a history book.