Guinn combines past and present to illustrate the long-lasting effect of institutionalized racism at the South Carolina Medical College, where fundraising and public relations are critical elements in Dean Jim McMichael’s job description. Like the priorities of the college’s founder, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, harking back to the pre-Civil War years, the institution’s survival is paramount. McMichaels has painstakingly instructed Dr. Jacob Thacker—presently on probation because of his bad judgment under duress—to monitor any communication with the public, keeping the college’s profile free of any negative publicity. Longing to return to the career he loves, Thacker is prepared to do almost anything to have the probation committee allow him to return to work.
Unfortunately, Jake is presented with a moral dilemma that has serious repercussions for the school, an issue that will draw eager reporters to the campus in search of stories. During recent construction, a number of human bones have been discovered in a basement below what was formerly the college’s dissection laboratory. Given the methods of attaining cadavers for medical students to dissect in the mid-nineteenth century, it is likely that most of these bones belong to African Americans. Though the Civil War provided a plethora of bodies for examination, the school needed a continuous source of cadavers in the years before and after the war. With a forensic anthropologist on his way from Clemson University, Jake takes immediate action to protect the school. Though McMichaels’ intervention proves effective, Thacker begins an extensive investigation of archived records from the school’s inception, an ugly history of deceit with ties to Jake’s own family history.
The emotional heft of the novel is found in alternating chapters that focus on a slave—Cudjo, who later chooses the name Nemo for himself—purchased by Dr. Johnston in 1857 because of his native skill at dissection, previously in field-stripping animals. Dr. Johnston uses Nemo to teach the blundering students at the college, but the slave has another, more nefarious talent: Nemo becomes a “resurrectionist”—a grave robber, who steals newly buried bodies from the nearby black cemetery. Nemo is a man who exists between two worlds: too intelligent for his station in life, limited by birth, proud of his abilities, yet feared by those who share his skin color. Although given a position as teacher, Nemo is abused by the spoiled sons of wealthy families, many of whom vent their frustrations and inadequacies on the former slave who remains at the college even after the Civil War.
Through Nemo’s story, the ground is laid for the contemporary discovery (including Thacker’s remote family ties to the era), but it is in present day that the truth is finally revealed, Jake under pressure to coerce those who demand an accounting of the college. Indeed, the machinations on behalf of the school are ironically similar to those of the plutocracy that governed during Nemo’s generation. Faced with an impossible decision, Thacker is deeply troubled by the information he has found in the archives, as well as disenchanted with those he has considered professional colleagues. In the light of contemporary events, while the resolution may not be surprising, the manner in which Thacker addresses his problem is uniquely satisfying. My only complaint is that the novel is too short, the topic crying out for more character development, more nuance and revelation, especially on behalf of the former slave and his bifurcated existence as scholar and grave robber.