Literature Annotations


Rinaldi, Ann
An Acquaintance with Darkness


Genre Novel for Young Adults (291 pp.)
KeywordsAdolescence, Art of Medicine, Communication, Death and Dying, Disease and Health, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Family Relationships, Freedom, Grief, History of Medicine, History of Science, Human Worth, Illness and the Family, Individuality, Infectious Disease, Loneliness, Love, Medical Advances, Medical Education, Medical Ethics, Medical Research, Mother-Daughter Relationship, Mourning, Ordinary Life, Ordinary Life, Science, Society, Tuberculosis, War and Medicine, Women in Medicine, Women's Health
SummaryThe novel is set in Washington, DC in April, 1865. At fourteen, Emily is sole caretaker of her mother who is dying of tuberculosis. Her neighbor, Annie Surratt, is her best friend, though their mothers have been estranged for some time. Both families have deep roots in the South. Annie’s brother, Johnny, an object of Emily’s romantic fantasies, has recently left on a secret mission. The war is nearly over. Emily’s uncle Valentine, a physician, wants to take custody of her after her mother dies, but because her mother has also felt estranged from him, Emily resists. Still, after her mother’s death, she does go to live with her uncle, and learns that he (with his two assistants, one of whom is a woman who is 1/8 African American) has a lively practice among the poor and the African Americans who have flooded the streets of Washington since the emancipation.

Valentine is called to Lincoln’s bedside the night of his assassination, and participates in efforts to track down John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices, one of whom appears to have been Johnny Surratt, who has escaped to Canada. In the course of her time there Emily discovers that her uncle and his assistant are involved in elaborate, marginally legal, schemes to obtain bodies for study at the medical college. Emily, at first horrified by this discovery, comes to recognize the good that comes of anatomical studies and to sympathize with her uncle’s efforts to bring about legislation making the acquisition of bodies for medical research easier. Annie’s mother is hanged as an accomplice in the Booth conspiracy, Annie leaves town, and Emily comes to understand a great deal more about the harsh terms on which life must be lived in times of national crisis and ideological warfare. The story ends with her growing interest in medicine as a possible career path.
CommentaryRinaldi’s rich gift for storytelling is evident in this novel: the plot and characters are complex and the historical situation riddled with controversies that not only invite an interest in the politics of public life and of medicine, but in the history of attitudes toward the body and toward science. Like Austen’s heroines, Emily starts with imbedded attitudes and inherited prejudices that are changed as she encounters the costly corrections life offers in a moment of public crisis.

As a coming-of-age story the book is both imaginatively appealing and relevant: it invites reflection on some basic issues in medical ethics and in jurisprudence in a way that is accessible to young people, but not oversimplified. The historical epilogue and bibliography help fill out the context, clarify what in the novel is historically accurate, and encourage readers to explore history for further insights into ongoing questions.
PublisherHarcourt, Brace (Gulliver Books)
Edition1997
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by McEntyre, Marilyn Chandler
Date of Entry 10/16/06