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The Plague Tales
Ann Benson
Delacorte Press, 474 pages

Plague Tales
Ann Benson
Ann Benson had four bestsellers in the bead and needleart field when she decided to undertake something entirely different. Combining a passion for medieval history with her love of biological sciences, which she studied at Upsala College and the University of Massachusetts, she wrote her first novel, The Plague Tales.

Not content with standard methods of promotion, Benson turned to the Internet to help promote the book. Drawing on her own resources she created a top notch website at www.plaguetales.com -- a place where she can communicate with readers and booksellers, offer reviews and reader commentary on the book, and progress reports on its sequel.

She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she is an elected member of the School Committee, working as an advocate for literacy and public health. She is a member of the Back Bay Chorale participating in the premiere recording of John Knowles Paine's St. Peter Oratorio. She is an amateur carpenter; she built the house in which she and her husband now live with their two daughters.

A Conversation With Ann Benson
The Plague Tales Website
Excerpt from The Plague Tales
Bantam/Doubleday/Dell Books
Dell Catalog: The Plague Tales
Centers for Disease Control
The Internet Medieval Sourcebook
Literary Review & Internet Bookstore
Entertainment Weekly Review

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alice Dechene

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In The Plague Tales, author Ann Benson presents the story of two estranged and alienated doctors, one a 14th-century Spaniard and the other a 21st-century American, in over their heads as they confront the deadly devastation of the bubonic plague.

Janie Crowe is a surgeon in 2005, a time when disease has been virtually eradicated and allocated to numbered vials in secured labs. As a result, most doctors have been bureaucratically reassigned -- as customs officials, technicians, wherever they fit. Janie is lucky enough to be transferred to forensic archaeology, which is at least remotely related to medicine. Fortyish and alone, she is back in school to earn her certification. To complete her thesis, she travels to London to take various soil samples.

Benson's rather bleak portrayal of the very near future paints a world of biocops (who track down contagious individuals), body printing, air travel in containment suits, and compudocs -- the real ones having been shunted to other jobs. Aspirin is a prescription drug (hey, drug companies need their money somehow) and antibiotics are useless. It's a world where science and technology have reached a frightening state of over-control.

Juxtaposed to this over-scienced near future is the far distant 14th century. Spanish physician Alejandro Canches attempts to expand his limited knowledge while working within the confines of humoral medicine and religious superstition. Escaping charges of desecration for having conducted an illegal and heretical autopsy, Alejandro flees Spain across France and ends as court physician to Edward III.

The common thread linking these two narratives is the outbreak of the bubonic plague. Alejandro encounters it firsthand on his travels across France and as royal physician; Janie unsuspectingly unleashes it on London through a contaminated soil sample. A piece of fabric, one tiny bacterium, freak circumstance and human error combine to awaken the sleeping plague. This unfolds in agonizingly slow motion that the tension is unbearable. A purse sits near a microscope, a palm wipes a sweaty forehead ... and we can just picture the microbes leaping everywhere. The suspense is horrific yet the action so mundane. In a beautifully orchestrated series of scenes, Benson contrasts the excruciating inertia of the lab accident with the speed with which the plague decimates Europe in Alejandro's time.

Benson raises some interesting issues in The Plague Tales. The superstitious 14th century offers a grim foil to the equally paranoid medical technology of the near future. The immediacy of a narrative set in 2005 attacks our sense of invulnerability to the normally distant bubonic plague. An outbreak in a time with no sense of disease control is understandable; but a hypersensitive antiseptic world confronting deadly contagion hits too close to home. We watch in fascinated horror as the process of contamination unfolds, from the rats and travelers in the 14th century to the all too believable lab disaster in the 21st. With all the technology at our disposal, we remain careless and selfish human beings.

My only major criticism of this novel is that this and other issues raised early in the book tend to lose focus and dissipate midway through. The two doctors are clearly introduced as characters in isolation, alienated from their surroundings. They have strong identity crises both personally and professionally (Alejandro is a Jew working incognito in a Christian court; Janie was a skilled surgeon now forced into forensic archaeology) that don't seem completely resolved by the end.

More noticeably, a couple of threads are left dangling when I wanted them more tightly knotted up. There is an entire subplot uniting the two main narratives involving a seemingly magical tract of land and a family legacy passed from mother to daughter for six centuries. How we get from Mother Sarah's stone cottage in the 14th century to the current guardian is unclear, and why they protect this field and its secrets is equally murky. If the plague were all over Europe, why worry about this plot of ground? The mysterious intertwining oaks which repulse or admit potential visitors and the fine linen pouch of healing herbs that metamorphoses into rough cloth add a magical element that, while a nice touch, seems quite out of keeping with the scientific air of the rest of the book.

Finally (and I can't believe I am saying this), I really expected more mayhem to be unleashed by the modern plague. Given the ruthlessness of the epidemic in 1348, I morbidly confess I expected a much higher body count by the final page. The contamination scene was so well done that there should have been much more devastation -- I mean, this is the plague. This is a minor point and probably comes from watching too much bad TV, but there we are.

It has been a while since a novel has gripped me this forcefully from the opening chapters. I was immediately drawn into both stories and they do weave together well. Benson masterfully sustains suspense and creates characters who deal with much more personal issues than simply a plague outbreak. She has crafted an enjoyable, intriguing and, at times, quite frightening read that is especially noteworthy as a first novel. I look forward to her future ventures.

Copyright © 1997 by Alice Dechene

Alice is a contributing editor to the SF Site. She studied and taught Comparative Literature and French at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1988 to 1994 (give or take a semester). Her time is taken up these days with her two children and the SF Site, both of which are joint projects with her husband.


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