Saturday, January 21, 2012

Review of Open Wound By: Jason Karlawish

Open Wound
By: Jason Karlawish

Summery from Amazon:
A shotgun misfires inside the American Fur Company store in Northern Michigan, and Alexis St. Martin's death appears imminent. It's 1822, and, as the leaders of Mackinac Island examine St. Martin's shot-riddled torso, they decide not to incur a single expense on behalf of the indentured fur trapper. They even go so far as to dismiss the attention of U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon William Beaumont, the frontier fort's only doctor.
But in the name of charity and goodness, Beaumont ignores the orders and saves the young man's life. What neither the doctor nor his patient understands---yet---is that even as Beaumont's care of St. Martin continues for decades, the motives and merits of his attention are far from clear. In fact, for what he does to his patient, Beaumont will eventually stand trial and be judged.
Rooted deeply in historic fact, Open Wound artfully fictionalizes the complex, lifelong relationship between Beaumont---a prominent figure in Michigan's medical past and present---and his illiterate French Canadian patient. The young trapper's injury never completely heals, leaving a hole into his stomach that the curious doctor uses as a window to understand the mysteries of digestion. Eager to rise up from his humble origins and self-conscious that his medical training occurred as an apprentice to a rural physician rather than at an elite university, Beaumont seizes the opportunity to experiment upon his patient's stomach in order to write a book that he hopes will establish his legitimacy and secure his prosperity. As Karlawish portrays him, Beaumont, always growing hungrier for more wealth and more prestige, personifies the best and worst aspects of American ambition and power.

My Review:
This book was very well written. I had heard of Dr. Beaumont before and had always been interested in how his patient had come to have a hole in his stomach. Mr. Karlawish did an excellent job of bringing this piece of history to life. I was virtually transported back to 1822, and the years that followed, to witness Dr. Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin's often troubled interactions. I say interactions, because they were never truly friends. A friendship requires a form of respect on each side of the fence, and while Alexis had some respect to an extent for Dr. Beaumont, Beaumont never really respect Alexis at all. However not respecting Alexis doesn't necessarily make Beaumont a bad man. Raised in the time period that he was, no one of that time period would fault him for looking at Alexis as more of a scientific breakthrough than an actual man. You have to remember this was when slavery was still common place, American Indians were all assumed to be savages and Alexi being an indentured fur trapper made him only a step higher on the social ladder of the time. Even with this outlook, Beaumont does still try to morally educate Alexis. He gives him work in exchange for his medical treatment and a place to stay. He also buys Alexi's contract from the fur company, thereby making him a free man. (however later he does basically put him back into being an indentured servant, albeit by a different name) But Alexi is young, while he idolizes the doctor for saving him, he also wants to have a life and not be constantly poked and prodded at. This leads to a constant source of problems for both of the men.
Along with the other multitude of sins they are guilty of, both men are extremely greedy. Beaumont even more so than Alexis. Alexis simply wants to be able to make an easy buck. Beaumont on the other hand wants riches as well, but he also wants his name immortalized in history. His reputation is more important to him than anything else and he sees it directly tied to whatever discoveries he can make from experimenting on Alexis' wound. Even when his experiments seem to inflict direct pain on Alexis, Beaumont simply ignores it and continues with his work.
In the end I honestly felt bad for Beaumont. He was so obsessed with his "reputation" and immortalizing his name, that he was never able to be happy. He never truly enjoyed the wealth and stature that he did accrue. He always looked at his experiments on Alexis as a failure, since they never amounted to what he felt they should. It was a constant source of embarrassment for him, even when people came to see him simply because he was the doctor who had the patient with a hole in his stomach.
As for Alexis, I thought he was selfish. Not because he wouldn't "share" his injury with the world so that the world could learn more about digestion etc.,but he was given a second chance and he didn't truly appreciate it. He squandered whatever money he had on alcohol, and was always assuming that he deserved more than what he received. I'm not saying that how he was viewed by the Dr. was correct, but he was given a second chance on life, and the Dr. offered him a fresh start and he walked away from it.
As I said before Karlawish's work was extremely well written. The only thing I didn't understand was later in the book. For the majority of the book it is written from Dr. Beaumont's perspective, then out of no where there are two small sections that switch to Alexis' point of view. While I wouldn't have minded seeing more of Alexis point of view, the two scenes just seemed out of place. They did add more information to the story. For example showing how Alexis's wife wasn't just meek and manipulated by Alexis. I actually wish there had been more of these scenes from Alexis point of view, maybe they would have helped me to understand some of his actions better.
On the whole though I think the book was very interesting. It drew me in from the beginning, and while I'm not sure if Dr. Beaumont would like entirely how he was portrayed in this book's pages, I think it would mean something to him that he has not been forgotten.

*****In compliance with FTC guidelines, I'm disclosing that I received this book for free through GoodReads First Reads. ****
(I recommend everybody should go check out all the awesome first read giveaways they have!)

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