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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Open Wound by Jason Karlawish

I love historical fiction, and so I really enjoyed this new novel based on a true story. The book opens on Mackinac Island in the year 1822.  Mackinac Island (pronounced mackinaw) was a Native American settlement of the Ojibwe peoples since prehistoric times, but was then occupied by the British during the American Revolutionary War.  Being a tiny island strategically located between the peninsulas of upper and lower Michigan, Mackinac was overrun by two of man's most horrible creations; the fur industry, and war (the French and Indian War,  and the War of 1812).

Enter Dr. William Beaumont, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, based alongside The American Fur Company.  Beaumont seems to be admirable; hardworking, meticulous, and a modest drinker.   The previous doctor at this frontier outpost was addicted to both drink and opium, so Beaumont (in comparison) brought great measures of hygiene and competence to this wilderness.  Time spent as an assistant surgeon in the War of 1812, and specifically, the Battle of Plattsburgh, have made him an expert surgeon. But curled within Beaumont lies a bud of ambition that threatens to blossom into a terrible flower.   Then, a shotgun accident involving a young French trapper calls upon all of Beaumont's surgical skills.  This sudden collision of Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin is almost like a koan or a parable, with the outcome depending upon the wisdom and integrity of those involved.  Despite the medical nature of this read, it is not dry.  Instead, we're brought back to a fascinating time in U.S. history, and the story does move along at a decent clip.  As a bonus, I found the writing to be keenly brilliant and elegant.

In Open Wound, author Jason Karlawish does a good job of staying objective, despite the actions of the doctor at the risk of the patient's health.  Reading this made me think about the larger questions in life.  What is violence?  How can Free Will be exploited?  There are complicated natures of debt in this story, and equally complex payment structures.  This would be a good novel for book club discussions due to the many ethical and moral issues that abound in this good read, and in medicine itself.

As a Professor of Medicine and Medical Ethics at an American university, Jason Karlawish is perhaps the perfect person to have written this intriguing story.  Here is a youtube video with the author talking about this book.

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