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September1999
The Scourges of Heaven
by David Dick
Bill:

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Hi everybody, and welcome back to the bookclub@ket. Our September selection, The Scourges of Heaven, is by David Dick. Dick, a journalist and long-time CBS correspondent, has written his first novel, the story of an English girl who is orphaned on a trip to America when her parents are befallen by the cholera plague—the plague that swept Europe and America during the 19th century.

Before we go on with our story, I want to say hello once again to our bookclub members: Cait ...

Cait: Hi Bill.
Bill: ... and Lynda ...
Lynda: Hey.
Bill: ... Jonathan ...
Jonathan: Hello.
Bill: ... and Dava.
Dava: Hello Bill.
Bill: Jonathan, let's begin and talk a little bit about the characters and the story.
Jonathan: Well, it's a novel with quite a lot of characters in it although ...the main character -- you might say the protagonist -- is Cynthia Anne who's originally called Charlsie Ferguson. She's this English girl who gets adopted by the captain of a ship and in many ways it's about her development as a character, her story, yet set against this awful...set against the story of this awful human tragedy of the cholera pandemic of 1833.

As a reader, I feel that she's one of the strongest characters in the novel and the most fully drawn although perhaps the person who adopted her, Captain Lovingsworth who is also a very interesting character, and then there's a whole range of people whom she meets and who help her and who do various things for her and they're not so fully drawn in many cases, but, I think it's a lively story and something of a page turner.

Bill: What about other characters in the book... or the way that Cynthia meets these characters as she goes through the novel? Dava?
Dava: Well I feel the story has a whole lot more of a story line than others we've read. It's not psychological, it really is a book to be read almost for the adventure of the story.

So you meet other characters by way of the route that Cynthia Anne takes through the Americas. She comes to new Orleans, but then she makes her way northward to Kentucky with Captain Lovingsworth and his wife Abigail. Then, you know, she lives in Kentucky and she ends up making her way back down to new Orleans later in her life. You don't really get to delve too deeply into the characters' thought patterns so what you know of them comes by way of their actions and things they say.

You can find many lively characters in that respect -- her grandfather who she talks of often. Her grandfather Charlie, who is left behind in England was quite a lively character and he was very intellectual but very rambunctious and rowdy. Much of his spirit is embodied in Charlsie or Cynthia Anne and you see this later on in her life. He's one of the people I admired in the book.

Bill: And one of the early characters, Reverend Daniel Goodman (no relationship, I don't think). Lynda, what about Reverend Goodman?
Lynda: Daniel Christian Goodman was his middle name and the good reverend that left his wife and children to carry his religion to the new world. He felt that America was the place for him to take his vision -- which was a little harsh, I think, toward humanity. But unfortunately, he was one of the early victims of cholera and died on the trip from London to America so we don't get to know too much about him other than he certainly thought cholera was, as the name suggests, a scourge of heaven. He thought that people who were not good Christians, were the ones that were going to succumb to the illness.
Bill: That's sort of a theme that we'll talk about a little bit later in our discussion, but along with reverend Goodman, too we meet Sylvia
Cait: um hmm
Bill: The prostitute
Cait: Right
Bill: What did we learn about her?
Cait: She... let's see, how did she...? She snuck onto the boat basically through the reverend and that was, that was pretty civic of her (laughing)
Bill: Sort of a moral trade-off to gain her passage on board the ship?
Cait: She's an interesting character. She's a very independent woman and comes back in the end of the book too. I thought that was interesting that he (author David Dick) brought, that he brings her back in the end, but... she is responsible for Cynthia being adopted by the captain. She very deftly has the girl renamed Cynthia Anne after the ship so that he (the captain) will agree to take her under his wing, so to speak. Although he's very reluctant to do that and he ends up taking her to new Orleans with him.
Bill: Then the story begins from there. I thought it was interesting too...the descriptions of the passage from new Orleans, up the Mississippi and all the way up into Kentucky. He found really when he got to Washington, Kentucky, and then in Lexington really found a ghost town of sorts.
Lynda: Absolutely.
Bill: But, but who did they meet in Lexington?
Lynda: King Solomon, a familiar character to those who know Lexington history. Often he (the author) sprinkles real people in the book. Dickens crops up in here, also.
Bill: Charles Dickens, right.
Lynda: King Solomon was well known for surviving the epidemic and helping to bury the dead in Lexington.
Bill: And he is buried here in Lexington. You can visit his grave. There's a marker and all of that Jonathan, I don't know if you knew of that but he certainly brings him in.
Cait: The fictionalized version of it is the captain is his old friend and that is part of the reason that he's drawn back to Kentucky. I thought that was interesting that the captain, in the beginning, spends a lot of time fantasizing about living in Kentucky, returning to Kentucky and thinking that that's going to be his way of escaping from this disease and take his family there, but...
Bill: Then King Solomon too, had some other acquaintances that he was familiar with here that Cynthia Anne got to know. One being Aunt Charlotte and then Jem. Right?
Dava: King Solomon was an indentured servant of Aunt Charlotte because that was his punishment for his public drunkenness. But Jem and Aunt Charlotte were both freed slaves and they lived with King Solomon and they formed a trio of good Samaritans. I thought a lot about this story. I admired how it focuses on what society considers outcasts and shows the good deeds they do. It really brings into question that the scourge of heaven has nothing to do...its no respecter of persons at all. I really enjoyed that part of the book it was part of the social questioning that went on; it was the whole mind-set back then.
Lynda: Well, you're right...the book also parallels society at that time and talks about slavery and as you said Jem and Aunt Charlotte were freed slaves and it talks about, what's the fellow's name who they ride the buggy from the boat?
Dava: Charles Adams?
Lynda: Charles, yeah and he was a runaway slave and when they found out he was originally from Kentucky the captain said, "well, I'll take you back with me" and he said, "no, no, thank you don't want to go back there" yeah.
Bill: What about Jem and his character? I thought that was a rather strongly, written character in the way that Jem related to Cynthia Anne and the bond that they really formed. Jonathan?
Jonathan: Yeah, that was an interesting episode where Jem is really astonished to realize that Cynthia Anne wants to be his friend. As you know, a young black boy at this period, he's not accustomed to white people wanting to be his friend. But she actually wants him to be a friend. She even calls him my brother and so on, and they become very good friends. They meet much later when they're both grown up and he at this stage has enrolled, at Xavier University in Cincinnati as a medical student. There's a scene when they meet and eventually they fall in love. They fall in love rather suddenly it seems a little bit unconvincing the way they fall in love like that. Because, they only just meet and then within about five minutes they're proclaiming love for each other. But having said that, it's a very important relationship, I think from the moral perspective of the novel, because, I think David Dick, throughout the story is really questioning segregation in every way and really trying to show humanity in people as much as he can in every way. He's even critical of the church, which he thinks has supported slavery and supported segregation.
Bill: I think he really did promote that sort of theme throughout. He wants the reader to come away with, not only learning facts in reading fiction, but thinking about theology and some of these deeper questions. There is another kinder and more gentle character, too that we haven't talked about and that's the physician who we meet on board the ship. He's also a Kentuckian, in fact, there are two or three Kentuckians-- the captain, King Solomon, and the first mate. Let's see, the physician and quite frankly, I've forgotten...
Jonathan: Hanover, wasn't it?
Bill: Dr. Hanover, right! Graduate of Transylvania University. Well, what did you think about him?
Jonathan: He was another enlightened character in the novel. Everything he said had to do with questioning the presuppositions about medicine that were prevailing at the time. For instance, people thought that the cure for cholera was bloodletting and using leeches. He really felt that cholera was connected to living conditions and to dirt and to filth. That was one of the great themes of the of the novel. That is, how people had an almost medieval idea of disease in the 1830s and somebody like Hanover is questioning that. He obviously represents a modern point of view -- thinking that no, saying prayers will not necessarily cure cholera.

The way to cure cholera is to attack your living conditions is to attack the filth that's around you and so on and so forth. So he was an enlightened character and he had some run-ins with the captain, didn't he? Because he was really very much in favor of making conditions more comfortable for passengers in steerage -- which the captain had no intention of doing.

Cait: uhm hmm
Bill: Did you think that David Dick did a good job examining the relationship of the disease to the people and maybe their misunderstanding of all of it? That seemed to be, as we just mentioned a second ago, sort of a theme throughout...
Cait: Yeah, he's addressing not only the separation between the whites and blacks, but also of the classes and how, in the ship. I thought that was that was one of the more interesting parts of the book, was the descriptions of steerage and how the separation of these people led to...all sorts of inevitable problems and that, once he got to the cities it was the same thing. Although even though he was clearly pointing out that not just the upper classes were spared from it because that certainly wasn't the case but...
Bill: And the descriptions of London before they left and the way they were taking care of the victims of cholera and all of that.
Lynda: And how wide widespread it was.
Bill: Do you think people were too quick to blame God or to look for an easy answer...?
Dava: I think with a cholera epidemic in the face of such devastation and grief, that it would have been possible to have so much debate. Because it makes the characters in this book...someone would drop dead one second and their husband or mother the next second would be "well, do you think this is a punishment for their sins" I know it was some questions, certainly, but I don't think it was. It didn't lie as heavily on these people as implicated. It really drove the point home in this book -- and perhaps that was the goal -- but I think people probably were more resigned to the fact that cholera was there.
Jonathan: And Dick, demoralized and perhaps . . .
Dava: Right
Jonathan: In the face of this tragedy very many of them are quite articulate and are engaged in complicated theological debates, in response to the tragedy. But, in cases of famine or epidemics, I suppose people are often too demoralized to even think clearly and they're dealing with the immediate problem rather than getting involved in a debate. But, that's not to say, he shouldn't have done that. But it is to say that sometimes it was a point driven home all too well. And, you know, the title is The Scourges of Heaven so...it's more than one? There were so many scourges or there were so many tragedies in the novel that in each occasion, you had some character who had a medieval mind-set, who said, "oh, it's a scourge of heaven."
Lynda: Well, for example, the captain's wife, Abigail, as she was dying wondered if this was punishment for her sins although she couldn't think of any sins that she had, but thought maybe that must have been the reason she was dying.
Dava: And even Little John, the son of Cynthia Anne, when he was dying, was asking his mother was he dying because God was punishing him?
Bill: Fill in the blanks on that a little bit, Dava because that's when Cynthia Anne was married for a period of time had a child, but of course, they both...
Dava: Yeah, Cynthia Anne lived in Owl Creek Hollow, I believe with the carpenters who were her adopted parents after captain Lovingsworth and Abigail died.
Bill: How old do you think she was at that time?
Dava: She was 17 when she married John Shelby. She married John Shelby and had a rather shallow marriage with him it wasn't what she expected. It wasn't the fulfillment of the love of her life, but she had one son named Little John and then suffered three miscarriages after that so. She only had one son out of this marriage. The cholera epidemic would pop back up periodically. It would resurge. During one of its resurgences she lost both her husband and her son-- Little John when they went to town, to market to sell tobacco they went one morning and came back the next day and they had been stricken with this illness and died that night. So she lost both of them and that was her family she lost that one day.
Cait: She didn't seem too sorry to lose her husband
Dava: No, but her son, definitely.
Lynda: That's the way the book opened, too in finding Little John's grave and it talks about the characters who, who find the grave and then that's the way it ends.
Bill: Did you like that technique? That's sort of different.
Lynda: Yeah it was a useful way to get into the book.
Cait: Useful way to tie it up in the end.
Jonathan: It ended rather oddly. It ended rather suddenly, I thought. Didn't you think? It ended with Joseph O'malley going to this church to confess his sins and then he also asks the priest did these people die of cholera because of their sins, because of God's punishment? And the priest, who represents, I think, a modern enlightened form of Catholicism 'cause it's in a confessional, he says, "No, no at all, no God is love" and that, that's a recurring theme isn't it? In many ways, it's kind of a religious novel, it drives home this idea that God is love rather than God is vengeance.
Lynda: Do you think it gives the answer? It poses the question, but do you think it answers the question?
Jonathan: Well, not necessarily. It provokes discussion.
Bill: Let me just read a short piece I found that Dick wrote about his writing of the novel. He wrote, "It's intended purpose is to point toward an improved social condition; a more intellectually honest understanding of the relationship of medical science and theology; and a more harmonious and sensitive accord among ethnic, racial and gender differences." and my question would be, did he accomplish that? As we just said, he certainly provoked the discussion and the thoughts that you have about it. Did he reach that sort of conclusion that he would want the reader to?
Jonathan: I think that, in some ways it's a book that explores issues and it's based upon the idea of exploring issues. He's interested in telling the history of the cholera pandemic back in 1833. He's interested in describing the social conditions. He's interested in having people have theological debates. Whether or not that creates a great work of fiction I don't know. I think sometimes he's more interested in the historical facts, as well as the philosophical question, than he is in making a fictional world. Cait, what did you think?
Cait: Yeah, I agree with that. I thought the characters didn't quite convey to me in my mind some of what he was trying to do with that. I found them a little bit clumsy I think, particularly Cynthia Anne was hard for me to relate to.
Bill: Then, would you not agree that she was a strong character? Or is she not the sort of heroine that we're used to reading about?
Cait: Well, I thought she was a little sophisticated beyond her years in a way that made her hard to believe.
Jonathan: She's twelve.
Lynda: At the beginning, yeah, but...
Cait: She was independent and thus interesting to some extent.
Bill: Well, then skipping to the very end. She goes through this life of sorts and she certainly does become more independent. I mean she's the survivor. Maybe it's wrong for me to think that she's more of a heroine then that throughout the novel. Does she just take on that sort of characterization at the very end, do you think?
Cait: Not necessarily, well, that's certainly fair -- that she still hadn't developed. What do you think, anyone else?
??: One, one criticism I had was that she changed so suddenly on the boat. When she was adopted she was a scared little girl at one point and then became more worldly wise. She was almost teasing the captain, here, do you like my ribbons? Do you like my hair? So she grew up very rapidly but she was a smart, smart character and didn't make too many mistakes in life.
Jonathan: Yeah, it's true I had the feeling later on. I've got a passage here from page 255, two-thirds way through. This is 1844 and she's now living alone on a farm and it's as if she's transformed from being just Cynthia Anne into almost a symbol, almost an embodiment of the pioneering spirit. And if I just, read you this passage I think you get what I mean.

&Cynthia was the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian foundation of the future of Kentucky and the nation. She was five inches of topsoil upon which, with sufficient moisture a civilization could grow. Her love of sowing and reaping, of conserving the soil and water and her respect for the ways of nature were the basis of Cynthia's resolve to survive and to grow.&

You know, it's almost as if she's transformed into a an embodiment or a symbol of what made the nation great and in that sort of act of transformation, I think he's in danger of turning her into a symbol and therefore not a real character any more. Sometimes, you know, I had that feeling about her.

Bill: The book is intended, of course, as a work of fiction. But they aptly entitle it (and David Dick has talked about it) being historical fiction. Let's talk a little bit about that because it does mix, certainly things that we know that went on. He did a lot of research on these areas but does it bother you that it's the first work we've had in the bookclub this year that really talks, that is a work of historical fiction?
Cait: He admits it in the afterword -- at the very beginning of the afterword -- that he really didn't have much fact to go on as far as the cholera epidemic. Apparently there just wasn't that much information about it. So I thought he did an admirable job of describing what that was like, what it was like to live in these horrible conditions.

But I was wishing for more of that, I think, a little less, maybe just a little less dialogue.

Bill: More of the fact and descriptions?
Cait: Yeah, I think I was wishing for that. Because I don't know anything about it and I think that was what I would have liked to have found out more about.
Bill: Jonathan, is this a technique that's used widely? Is it fairly new? Has it been used in writing for a long time?
Jonathan: Well, historical fiction is an old genre. I think what you have to do is get a balance between describing historical conditions as they really were or as we think they really were, and, on the other hand, having very strong characters and, real lively dialogues that really make it just as much of a fiction as if it wasn't a historical fiction.

I think he does something, which historical novelists often don't do and his acknowledgments page at the back is an enormous list of scholarly resources and the libraries that he's visited. He's obviously put an enormous effort into researching the times and researching the disease as far as he could. He even went to walk around the streets of Southwark to see what they were like -- which is where the novel is set at the beginning. I think he did an enormously good job of researching the times and the result is there.

Bill: And also too often novels (and certainly we read a lot about afterwords) but not all, contain that. Certainly, but not usually in fiction unless there's another part of the story to tell or the beginning of a sequel or something like that did. Did you like that?
Lynda: I think he did a very good job with the afterword.
Cait: I did too.
Lynda: His reporter technique came out there. But it was a nice touch, that he interwove all this history or background with the people, the characters in his book. Carrie would have been so old when this happened or when that happened, so I enjoyed the afterword.
Bill: What about you, Dava? Did you find that it was really (quite honestly to me) a big help in thinking? If it hadn't been there -- it sort of crossed the "t" for me at the very end of the novel.
Dava: Well, sometimes I have a lot of trouble with comparisons like: this was going on at the same time as this. And I can read it and think, well, that's what happened but it's hard for me to put a picture together like that. I thought it was a nice ending because it did tell you facts and then a few more details about the epidemic and historical accounts of other epidemics that had come through Europe earlier and then across, you know, to the Americas. But, the story was the story for me, you know that's what I liked about it.
Bill: What was your favorite part of the story?
Dava: I really enjoyed that more than anything else even though that is sort of morbid.
  (Panel laughing)
Dava: I wanted more accounts of... suffering well, that sounds really bad. Boy, what a...
  (Panel laughing)
Bill: It does. But that's the question. You answered it honestly. Were you surprised that Cynthia Anne if I interpreted this properly had toyed with the idea of entering the convent? I mean that...
Cait: I really was that, you know, didn't that did surprise me I wouldn't have expected that of her even though you figure you understand that she's a spiritual person and she has this questioning nature and she has this background, you know.

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