In the historical fiction novel Ben’s Bones, author Joseph C. Gioconda pulls off one of my favorite historical fiction “tricks,” that is, to present a lively account of history while teaching me something. This is the story of Dr. Hewson, who contributed to the discovery of fibrin, a key protein involved in blood coagulation, at the dawn of hematology as a science.
The story starts with William Hewson as an assistant in the medical anatomy school of Dr. William Hunter. There is a second Hunter brother, the under-appreciated and resentful John Hunter, who is also a doctor and surgeon. John is a brilliant scientist and an anatomist with a dark side, who checks his morals at the door. Hewson discovers that John performs sadistic experiments on animals and deals with unsavory characters. Hewson starts to suspect the true depth of depravity that occurs in providing cadavers for the school when a pregnant woman’s cadaver is delivered with a slashed throat, her blood still fresh.
To pursue his own research, Dr. Hewson leaves Hunters’ employment and soon opens his own anatomy school, becoming a competitor. The Hunters play dirty, and Hewson is soon embroiled in a scandalous accusation of child murder.
This is where the story turned very interesting for me.
In an earlier Tyburn chapter, John Hunter gives a bottle of wine to a dwarf woman, a convict sentenced to be hung. The book later reveals that she was anatomized by the Hunters, sharing a museum display case with a skeleton of a giant man.
I wonder if it was a foreshadow for the asylum scene, where Hewson and his wife go to a lunatic asylum and give out cakes for medically hopeless children living there. Has Hewson became like John Hunter—pursuing knowledge at any cost?
At the end of the asylum scene, a patient throws himself at the feet of Hewson. The next line of dialogue is un-attributed, “I will support your work completely, William. All of this suffering must cease.” It presumably was Polly’s words, because it followed Hewson’s description of his noble intentions to cure diseases.
A few chapters later, Hewson defends himself of child murder accusations, as well as defends his decision to use the child’s body for his research.
I really enjoyed this historical fiction novel. This is an artfully presented historical lesson, using real people and settings to dramatize the events. Mr. Gioconda starts the tale from multiple POVs, and it took me a while to piece together the direction of the story—from grave robbers, Franklin, Hewson, the police, Polly, and so it alternates. The chapters are quick and mostly single scene; for me, it led to a bit of head-hopping. That said, the narrative threads come together by about the midpoint of the book when the story truly becomes Hewson’s.
This is exactly the type of historical fiction I enjoy reading—an entertaining story that teaches you something. I enjoyed learning about Dr. Hewson, and I recommend Ben’s Bones to any historical fiction fan.
I received an advance reader copy of Ben’s Bones for this review.
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