Servants of the Map is an inspired title for Andrea Barrett’s painstakingly written book, a gathering of five thematically interwoven stories and a novella linked by theme and characters to her preceding Ship Fever (1996), itself a gathering of interwoven stories and a novella. Both collections deftly explore “the love of science and the science of love—and the struggle to reconcile the two,” as Barrett has said, and both contain vividly imagined historic situations. (In the novella “Ship Fever,” the typhus epidemic and Canadian quarantine of 1847, following in the wake of the Irish potato famine; in “The Cure,” the novella that concludes Servants of the Map and continues the adventures of an Irish survivor of “Ship Fever,” the establishment of tuberculosis “rest-cure homes” in the Adirondack Mountains in the early years of the twentieth century.)
In both collections, men and women behave with uncommon selflessness and intelligence, as “servants” of one kind or another: fictional naturalists, explorer-mapmakers, chemists, biologists, ornithologists, geneticists, geographical botanists, physicians, nurses, teachers. Barrett’s favored era is the mid-nineteenth century, when virtually everyone is given to nature walking and collecting, even young children; it’s a time of exploration and discovery when, among the wealthy and acquisitive, “glass cases filled with tropical creatures arranged by genus or poised in tableaux were wildly fashionable,” and an ambitious young man could make a name for himself by striking out for the Amazon and paying the expenses of his trip by gathering birds, small mammals, land-shells, and “all the orders of insects.”
It’s an exhilarating era when remote parts of the earth are being mapped, ever-new subspecies of animals, plants, and insects are being discovered, and new sciences like genetics are being developed. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Asa Gray’s Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology, and Joseph Hooker’s Himalayan Journals are being avidly read. In Barrett’s fiction men and women write lengthy, elegantly composed letters to each other, sometimes in lieu of seeing each other for years. Lovers are steadfast in devotion, long-lost brothers and sisters are haunted by dreams of reunion. A Christian schoolmaster devotes his intellectual life striving to “reconcile the truths of Scripture with those of geology.”
A young husband and father risks his life in the service of the British Trigonometrical Survey of India in the Himalayas, by degrees discarding his map-making vocation for the exotic pleasures of geographical bounty (“Servants of the Map”); a young naturalist/collector explores such remote and dangerous places as the Amazon, Borneo, and Sumatra, in his hope of achieving renown as his friendly rival Alfred Wallace did, but is fated to labor in Wallace’s shadow (“Birds With No Feet,” Ship Fever); a married couple, after early lives of privation, establish the first Academy for the Deaf in the United States, in Ohio in the 1820s (“Two Rivers,” Servants of the Map).
In an age of postmodern irony and distrust of science, there is an appealing young-adult earnestness in Andrea …