Review by: Mark Palm
I thought that it was an odd little moment of serendipity that I read and reviewed two books last week that were released at essentially the same time and both different takes on the lives and works of the Bronte sisters. Well, if I ever wanted more proof that the great wild wonderful “Universe of Literature” can still be an intimate world after all, it came in a small but crucial moment in Sawbones, an exceptional historical novel by Melissa Lenhardt. There is a moment in the book when our heroine, in need of some escapism, picks up a novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte’s final novel. Not surprisingly it reminds our heroine of her own life.
I use the word heroine on purpose. Sawbones is the story of Dr. Katherine Bennett, who is trying to make her way through post Civil War America as a physician who happens to be an attractive young woman. If you think the attractive part is trivial you probably didn’t know that Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Nurses for the Union Army tried to use only plain girls, hoping it would lessen the chance that they would be exploited by male doctors and patients.
Dr. Bennett has a practice in New York City made up of society women and (secretly), prostitutes, until she is falsely accused of murder. Unable to provide an alibi because she was illegally procuring a corpse for dissection, and forced to make a choice between professional ruin and the noose she decides to change her name and make a run. Taking only her faithful maid, Maureen, she flees to the frontier, hoping to lose herself in West. The problem is that a working female physician is likely to draw unwarranted attention, but Dr. Bennett, now calling herself Laura Elliston, refuses to give up her life’s work.
The reason it is easy to get lost on the frontier is because it is lawless, and on the way to Colorado Laura’s wagon train is attacked by Indians, and Laura is the only person not captured or killed. A troop of cavalry arrives and drive the marauders off, but their Captain is grievously wounded, and Laura pulls off some bravura surgery in the back of a wagon in a thunderstorm to save the man’s life. Laura is afraid that her performance will draw attention to herself, but it also brings the gratitude of General Sherman, and the offer of a job at Fort Richardson, in Texas, at least until she is ready to move on. She takes the job and continues to care for the injured Captain, William Kindle, and the two begin to form a deeper relationship.
Now there is romance in the book, and it plays a crucial part, but as the title suggests Sawbones is not a novel for the timid. Laura and William’s relationship is so poignant because it is not stiff and formal, but realistic, often amusing, and even as each character is a part of their times, they are also trying to transcend the limits of their times. Ms. Lenhardt is unflinching in her portrayals of the attitudes of the time, and Laura’s attempts to deal with the sexism she faces on a daily basis is heroic in and of itself. Ms. Lenhardt. also shows us the grit and the violence, without sparing the blood and pain, and none of her characters are exempt.
The plot is tight, though a few of the coincidences seemed a bit strained at times, and the tension is relentless. There are a few slow spots in the middle, but most of the story moves at a quick pace. Now and then Laura, in her first-person narration gives us a description of the vistas of the the West, or the squalor of the fort, that while brief, are spot-on. The history and research is solid and un-obtrusive, and the characters are fully-fleshed, but this story lives and dies with Laura. And it lives. She is such an admirable and strong character, but what makes her really work is that she is true to life as well. She is not a superhero, but a woman who gives her all in the most desperate situations, and never ever loses her compassion. I am waiting for the sequel.