The Resurrectionist: A Novel

By Matthew Guinn

(Norton, $25.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in Atlanta and educated in the South at the University of Georgia, the University of Mississippi, and the University of South Carolina, where he was personal assistant to the late author James Dickey, Matthew Guinn knows well the territory he writes about in his debut novel, “The Resurrectionist.” Guinn and his wife and two children lives in Jackson, Miss., and he has taught at the Universities of Mississippi and South Carolina and the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Tulane University’s School of Continuing Studies in Madison, Miss.

What is this book about?

Set in the 19th and 21st centuries, this is a gothic novel that explores yet another facet of America’s troubled past (and some would say present) when it comes to racial matters. In this story, it’s the world of medicine and its queasy history of treating black citizens like less-than-human subjects of research.

Bones are discovered buried beneath the campus of South Carolina Medical College. It turns out that they are a legacy of the mid-19th century, when a founder of the school bought a slave, Nemo, who was adept at “resurrecting” the dead from a slave cemetery, to be used to teach anatomy to white students. In the present day, a young doctor on probation for tranquilizer abuse and doing public relations work for the medical school is tasked with hushing up the deeds of the past.

Nemo himself, smart, savvy, tormented and considered almost supernatural by his peers, is the living heart of the book, and his rise to becoming a teacher at the school after the war is almost miraculous. It is fascinating to note that his story is based on the true story of Grandison Harris, a slave bought by the Medical College of Georgia before the Civil War.  He was its janitor, butler and resurrectionist, and bones from bodies he stole from Cedar Grove cemetery were found there in 1989. The book, “Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training” (Smithsonian Institution, 1997), tells the true story that inspired Guinn’s novel.

Why you’ll like it:

Admittedly, you will need a taste for, or at least a tolerance of, the grisly to fully appreciate this book.  But the story is deeper than just a tale of body-snatching in the early days of medical research. It points out, as if more pointing out were really needed, that racism has sullied American history from its earliest days forward, and that while much was undoubtedly learned from studyng stolen bodies that later benefitted many patients, white and black, that outcome is stained by the way they were acquired and the secrets that were kept.  (The syphilis experiments conducted by the U.S. Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute on unwitting black men come uneasily to mind.)

In this impressive debut novel, Guinn takes this real life material and transmutes it into fiction that resonates with the powerful truth behind the artful story.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “The renovation of a South Carolina medical school unearths skeletons from the past…literally. The search for the origin of the bones leads Dr. Jacob Thacker, already suspended for Xanax abuse, into a historical thicket that could endanger both his career and the future of the school. Thacker attempts to mediate between the school’s gung-ho dean and the local African American community without derailing his reinstatement to practice. Guinn alternates deftly between this contemporary story and that of Nemo Johnston, the slave pressed into service as a resurrectionist at a time when the school could practice anatomy only on the cadavers of slaves. Nemo stays on after the Civil War, eventually rising precariously to the position of anatomy instructor. VERDICT Guinn makes good use of the rough—but fascinating—history of U.S. medical schools. Strong pacing, interesting lead characters, well-framed moral questions, and clever resolutions to both prongs of the story are the hallmarks of this winning debut that shows that in matters of race and American history, navigating to “truth” and “right” is almost always a complex journey.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “A stash of bones, found underneath a South Carolina medical school, links together two stories, one from the Civil War and one from the present, in first-time novelist Guinn’s Southern gothic. The Civil War story explains how the bones got there: Since the school is short on corpses, recently purchased slave Nemo Johnston is dispatched to “resurrect” bodies of recently deceased slaves for medical research. Nemo is a complex character, resigned to slavery though he’s clearly talented enough to be a surgeon. Yet he’s not entirely noble, as Nemo takes easily to the grisly job, even bringing back a body or two that he’s killed himself. He earns a financial success denied to most slaves, while being feared and despised by those in his community. Also new at the school, and also on the wrong side of history, is Sara Thacker, a midwife whose gender keeps her from training as a surgeon. In the present day, the bones of the slaves are discovered at the college, and the school panics over possible bad press and loss of donors when the history gets out. Jacob Thacker, a promising doctor who’s been demoted to public relations because of a former Xanax addiction, is enlisted to protect the college’s good name–but instead, he researches the archives and learns more of the details, including his own family connection. Nemo’s story is ultimately more compelling than Jacob’s, but Guinn provides a lot of twists and an effectively ominous mood, thanks partly to some not-for-the-squeamish medical scenes.

Booklist says: “…A historical novel (thanks to extended flashback chapters—the book’s strongest sections), a cursory look at medical ethics and race relations in the New South, a satire of PR in academia, all with a healthy dose of lurid southern gothic thrown in, Guinn’s book struggles to achieve a consistency of tone but will, nonetheless, appeal to the general reader with a taste for the macabre.

“Neatly juxtaposing the immense wealth and renown of the contemporary South Carolina Medical School against its avaricious origins, Guinn explores the broader issue of America’s avoidance of its complicated and troubled history of slavery and race relations,” says Shelf Awareness.

When is it available?

You can unearth this book now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight and Mark Twain branches.

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