Ship Fever won the National Book Award for Fiction, a rare distinction for a book of stories. Actually, it was honored almost exclusively for the novella "Ship Fever" with which it concludes. The stories bound with it, mainly about scientists and science, are competent and original; "Ship Fever," however, is one of the greatest American novellas, in a class with work of Melville, James, and Faulkner. It traces the arrival of Nora Kynd, an Irish immigrant fleeing famine, who arrives in North America, not at Ellis Island, but in Canada at Grosse Island in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec. There, near death from Ship Fever (Typhus), she is separated from her younger brothers and remains to nurse the dying young physician whose care has saved her life. The novella ends in a striking episode in which she sets out alone for Detroit. One of the best examples of contemporary historical fiction, it, in its portrayal of immigrant experience, is stunning.
Nora, at later stages in her life will reappear in other books by Andrea Barrett, notably Servants of the Map. One of her lost brothers survives resourcefully in her impressive novel The Voyage of the Narwhal.
I particularly enjoyed "Ship Fever", set on Grosse Isle during the Irish emigration. It tells the story of a young doctor and the incredibly awful conditions to which the Irish were subjected as a result of political decisions in London. Other stories also involve historical figures and are science related.
Andrea Barrett's incredibly crafted, complex, crystallized stories evoke a surprising amount of emotion in the limited space of a short story. Each involves some aspect of the history and revelations of science as a framework for an exposition of human weakness, desire, passion, longing and endeavor.
1996 National Book Award - Fiction
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