What goes better with a cup of egg nog and a warm fire than a historical fiction novel about a real-life shocking medical treatment for an illness that swept 19th-century America, relating to the origin of the idea of vampires? The answer: absolutely nothing.
That’s why we know you’re all planning to read Cynthia DeFelice’s gripping novel, The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker, over the break! Join us on January 6 when we discuss the novel with DeFelice herself via Skype at our Reading into History Family Book Club and take a look at some medical marvels in our Library collections.
In anticipation of book club, we chatted with DeFelice to learn more about this fascinating story! See what she has to say about it and share your own thoughts at the meeting.
Haven’t been to book club before? Come to your first book club meeting for free! Send us an email at email@example.com and we’ll get you set up. (And that’s not just a gift for the holidays—it’s true all year!)
DCHM: How did you learn about this frightening moment in American history? What inspired you to write about it?
Cynthia DeFelice: One morning my husband handed me the Sunday New York Times and said, “You’re going to love this.” I began to read about how the Smithsonian was going to celebrate Halloween with “true tales of vampirism” in colonial America! I devoured the article and contacted the scientists cited in it, and the rest is history. (That was a little joke for your group. Very small.)
DCHM: I think that most people envision historical research happening in archives or among giant stacks of history books—but your research brought you to cemeteries! How were you able to use graves to conduct your research?
CD: Nick Bellantoni, the state archaeologist of Connecticut, and Michael Bell, a Rhode Island folklorist, were kind and generous enough to share their research with me and invite me along to examine graves. Anecdotal and diary evidence had led them to believe certain graves had been dug up and the bodies within “put to rest” in keeping with local folk medical practice. No, we did not go around digging up the graves again to check their contents! Nick and Michael had a ground imaging radar machine that allowed us to see through the dirt and coffin lids to the skeletons inside. In this way we were able to see if the bones inside belonged to a suspected “vampire.”
DCHM: Throughout the book we encounter a number of medical practices that would never be used today. What was the most shocking idea about health or medicine that you came across while writing this book?
CD: Actually, I was most surprised by the comparisons to modern medicine and life. Vaccines had just been discovered. The idea of taking in a little bit of the thing that could kill you had been proven to be able to save or protect you. It’s not a far stretch to hope that ingesting a bit of smoke or ashes from the heart of a “vampire” could be beneficial. Think, too, about the fear and hysteria that accompanied the AIDS epidemic, and the bizarre treatments people continue to be willing to try in the face of life-threatening illnesses like cancer.
But actually, the most “shocking” thing I learned of was the idea of sewing yourself into your long johns in the fall and not taking them off until spring in order to prevent illness! That, and the general belief that bathing is bad for the health. (Sometimes I wish I lived in the past, but not when I think about things like that!)
DCHM: The townspeople in the book go to some shocking extremes to try to stop the spread of illness. However, only one character, a Pequot woman named Moll Garfield, is rumored of being a witch. In the 19th century, what about her would make her suspicious?
CD: I’ll use just three words to answer that: Native. Independent. Woman.
DCHM: Okay, so in just a few more words, how would you describe The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker?
CD: Times change, but human nature does not.
Written by Caitlin O’Keefe and Rachel Walman
DiMenna Children’s History Museum