Friday, March 3, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Voices in the Dead House by Norman Lock

Voices in the Dead House by Norman Lock is the ninth book in the author’s American Novel series. It presents multi-layered portraits of two literary giants, Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott, by examining a few months of their lives where their experiences overlapped. Both went to Washington in 1862 to serve in hospitals for the wounded following the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Whitman is given the first and larger portion of the novel. Puffed up with self-importance after the publication of Leaves of Grass, his vanity is touchy, his thoughts self-absorbed, and yet, his compassion for the wounded soldiers is boundless. He volunteers in the hospitals and performs menial labor as well as purchasing small gifts for the men and spending time trying to comfort them. In between his shifts, he wanders about Washington, musing on all aspects of life, oftentimes in company with his lover, Peter Doyle, a horsecar conductor. 

Alcott’s voice is quite different. She has escaped the poverty and drudgery of her (despised) father’s home and immerses herself in the drudgery of the hospital. She is an efficient and caring nurse, but her mind wanders constantly to her past and to the men who populated it: Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. She has passing thoughts of marriage but immediately repudiates them. She is a staunch abolitionist, but is defensive about her need to proclaim it. She, too, wanders about Washington, thinking, while she is not at work.

Lock does a tremendous job crawling inside the heads of these masters and pulling us inside as well. There is little plot. The characters come to the city, they work, they ponder, they exchange ideas with other people, and they move on. But the riveting prose and the dreamlike interior monologues of the protagonists carry the reader along.

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