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Michigander's historic novel about 1796 epidemic sounds eerily familiar

May 18, 2020 06:20AM ● By Editor
"Quarantine," a novel published in softcover in 2019 by Michigan State University Press, tells of an actual epidemic that struck Massachusetts in 1796, recounting parallels to the COVID-19 crisis. Photo: Michigan State University Press


By Bill Laitner of The Detroit Free Press - May 18, 2020

A historically-based novel first published eight years ago by a Michigan writer about a deadly disease that suddenly sweeps through a New England town in 1796 has gained added impact from this year’s pandemic.

Despite the more than two century time difference,  many of the characters and incidents in "Quarantine" sound eerily familiar today. They include people defying authorities’ orders to shelter in place, a mysterious new illness that baffles doctors while killing all ages, and health-care workers risking their lives to treat the sick.

"We actually have seen a bump in Quarantine's sales within the past month, as lock-down continues, at around 25%," Promotions Editor Elise Jajuga said at Michigan State University Press, which published a paperback version of the book in 2019.

The hero of “Quarantine” is a doctor who dies near the book’s end of the highly contagious fever. The disease arrives in the town’s harbor on a ship from the West Indies. Although the ship’s crew were ordered to stay put, under a quarantine imposed by the harbormaster, three groups sneak ashore after dark. They bring the deadly illness, just as airline passengers from Asia and Europe brought COVID-19 to the U.S. 

We reached author John Smolens of Marquette at his home in walking distance of Lake Superior. Smolens, 70, retired five years ago after decades of teaching English literature and creative writing, mainly at Northern Michigan University although he spent 11 years at MSU and several at Western Michigan University.

Smolens wrote “Quarantine” years before COVID-19 struck. MSU Press recently reissued it in paperback and as an e-book. When he wrote it, Smolens said, he had no idea that events and people in his novel would someday resemble those in a modern pandemic. (Interview was lightly edited for clarity.)


John Smolens of Marquette is the author of the historical novel Quarantine Michigan State University Press 1995

John Smolens of Marquette is the author of the historical novel "Quarantine" (Michigan State University Press: $19.95). Photo: Ellen Longsworth, Special to the Free Press

Q:  Although a work of fiction, you say your book was based on fact, starting with an epidemic that tormented the very town you wrote about – Newburyport, Massachusetts. And in the actual year your story takes place? 

A: I love to read history, and because I lived there for a decade right after college (when Smolens worked in construction), I read everything I could find about Newburyport – even old newspapers going back to the 1790s and old diaries they had in the library. . . The basis for this actually happened. In summer 1796, a ship came into the harbor with sick sailors. The hero, Dr. Giles Wiggins, is based on a real person.

Q: What was the disease those sailors brought?

A: I specifically tried not to give it a name. It’s so far back, I don’t think we can say with certainty what it really was. But it was horrible. People bled from every orifice. As they got sick, a lot of them would go crazy, and then they’d die after just a day or two. It was sometimes called yellow fever or red fever. You notice that Giles Wiggins was just starting to suspect a connection to mosquitoes when he died. (Around 1900, U.S. Army physician Dr. Walter Reed showed that deadly yellow fever was a virus transmitted by mosquitoes.)

Q: What are some parallels between then and now?

A:There are always people who take advantage of a situation. There is hoarding; there is profiteering. If you go online, you see the Jim Bakkers trying to sell you quack remedies for the coronavirus. (In the book, con artists sell medicine to the town’s leaders at inflated prices, after which the doctors find that most of the vials are stuffed with sand.)

Q: Can you compare how the townspeople react in your book to a highly contagious threat with the public reaction now?

A:There’s a scene when a minister is revving up the crowd with animosity toward those in the pest house (a temporary hospital of tents where sick townspeople are quarantined). Even the older doctor thinks there’s a religious reason for this disease. It’s an antiquated idea. But if you watch television news, there are still people trying to link the coronavirus to moral behavior. Here in Michigan, I think the news about protests has been very disturbing. It’s a tremendous denial of science. 

Q: What mistakes do people make in your book that some Americans are making today?

A:  The central and obvious similarity is, all these generations later, that the way to fight a thing like this is quarantine – the title of the book. At the height of the epidemic in Newburyport, there were shipowners pushing to open the wharves and the warehouses and get back to business. Now, we have elements that are saying, ‘You don’t need a mask. You can go back to work.’ When I was writing this, people said to me, ‘Could this happen again?’ I really had no idea that it would. But here we are. And just like the good people in the book, we have to be strong and continue with social distancing.

Q: Any chance that “Quarantine” might become a movie?

A:(He laughs.) I keep waiting for that call from Clint (Eastwood) or Steven Spielberg. When Clint calls, we will be on a first-name basis. . . I actually have written two screen plays (based on his first two novels). But 90% of the time, screenwriters never hear back.


To read the original article and see related stories, follow this link to The Detroit News website.https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2020/05/18/michiganders-novel-epidemic-1796-... 

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