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Robert Jeremy Cole, the legendary doctor and hero of The Physician, left an enduring legacy. From the 11th century on, the eldest son in each generation of the Cole family has borne the same first name and middle initial and many of these men have followed the medical profession. A few have been blessed with their ancestor's diagnostic skill and the "sixth sense" they call The Gift, the ability to know instinctively when death is impending. The tragedy of Rob J.'s life is the deafness of his son, Robert ...
Robert Jeremy Cole, the legendary doctor and hero of The Physician, left an enduring legacy. From the 11th century on, the eldest son in each generation of the Cole family has borne the same first name and middle initial and many of these men have followed the medical profession. A few have been blessed with their ancestor's diagnostic skill and the "sixth sense" they call The Gift, the ability to know instinctively when death is impending. The tragedy of Rob J.'s life is the deafness of his son, Robert Jefferson Cole, who is called Shaman by everyone who knows him. Shaman's life is difficult. First, he must learn to speak so that he can take his place in the hearing world, and then he must fight against the prejudices of a society where physical differences matter. As Shaman struggles to achieve his identity, the Coles, along with the rest of America, are drawn into the conflict between the North and the South.
From the wide-open prairie of frontier Illinois to the war-torn fields of the Civil War, this majestic epic of 19th-century America sweeps across decades of conflict and change. Dr. Rob Cole comes to the Great Plains to pursue his destiny, but it's an Indian Shaman called "The Bear Woman" who profoundly changes his life. (Historical Fiction)
The Spirit of Des Moines had sent signals ahead as it approached the Cincinnati depot in the coolness of dawn, detected by Shaman first as a delicate trembling barely perceived in the wooden station platform, then a pronounced shivering that he felt clearly, then a shaking. All at once the monster was there with its perfume of hot oiled metal and steam, charging toward him through the gloomy gray half-light, brass fittings gleaming in the black-dragon body, mighty piston-arms moving, the pale smoke cloud belching skyward like the spout of a whale and then drifting and trailing in dissolving tatters as the locomotive slid to a halt.
Inside the third car only a few of the hard wooden seats were empty, and he settled himself on one of them as the train shuddered and resumed its progress. Trains were still a novelty, but they involved traveling with too many people. He liked to ride a horse alone, lost in thought. The long car was crammed with soldiers, drummers, farmers, and assorted females with and without small children. The crying of the children didn't bother him at all, of course; but the car was redolent with a combination of stink—stale stockings, soiled nappies, poor digestions, sweaty and unwashed flesh, and the fug of cigars and pipes. The window seemed designed to be a challenge, but he was large and strong and finally succeeded in raising it, an act that quickly proved an error. Three cars ahead, the tall stack of the locomotive cast forth, in addition to smoke, a mixture of soot, live and dead cinders, and ash, swept backward by the speed of the train, some of it finding its way through the open window. Soon an ember had set Shaman's new coat to smoking. Coughing and muttering in exasperation, he slammed the window closed and beat his coat until the spark was dead.
Across the aisle, a woman glanced at him and smiled. She was about ten years older than he, dressed fashionably but sensibly for traveling in a gray wool dress with a hoopless skirt trimmed in blue linen to highlight her blond hair. Their eyes met for a moment before her glance returned to the tatting shuttle in her lap. Shaman was content to turn away from her; mourning wasn't a period in which to savor the games between men and women.
He had brought an important new book to read, but each time he tried to become engrossed in it, his thoughts returned to Pa.
The conductor had worked his way down the aisle behind him, and Shaman's first knowledge of his presence was when the man's hand touched his shoulder. Startled, he looked up into a florid face. The conductor's mustache ended in two waxed points and he had a graying ginger beard that Shaman liked because it left his mouth clearly visible. "Must be deef!" the man said jovially. "I've asked you three times for your ticket, sir."
Shaman smiled at him, at ease because this was a situation he had met again and again, all his life. "Yes. I am deaf," he said, and handed the ticket over.
He watched the prairie unroll outside his window, but it wasn't something to keep his attention. There was a sameness to the terrain and, besides, a train flashed past things so fast they barely had time to register on his consciousness before they were gone. The best way to travel was on foot or on horseback; if you came to a place and you were hungry or had to piss, you could just turn in and satisfy yourself. When the train came to that kind of place, it vanished in an instant blur.
The book he had brought was Hospital Sketches, by a Massachusetts woman named Alcott who had been nursing the wounded since the beginning of the war, and whose picture of the agony and terrible conditions in army hospitals was creating a stir in medical circles. Reading it made things worse, because it caused him to imagine the suffering that might be facing his brother Bigger, who was missing in action as a Confederate scout. If, indeed, he reflected, Bigger wasn't among the nameless dead. That kind of thinking led him directly back to Pa over a road of choking grief, and he began looking about him desperately.
Near the front of the car, a skinny little boy started to vomit, and his mother, sitting white-faced among piles of bundles and three other small children, leapt to hold his forehead in order to keep him from soiling their belongings. When Shaman reached her, she had already started the unpleasant cleaning up.
"Maybe I can help him? I'm a doctor."
"No money to pay thee."
He waved it aside. The boy was sweating after the paroxysm of nausea but was cool to the touch. His glands weren't swollen and his eyes seemed bright enough.
She was Mrs. Jonathan Sperber, she said in answer to his questions. From Lima, Ohio. Going to join her husband, homesteading with other Quakers in Springdale, fifty miles west of Davenport. The patient was Lester, eight years old. Wan, but with color returning, he didn't appear to be gravely ill.
"What's he been eating?"
From a greasy flour sack her reluctant hands took a homemade sausage. It was green, and his nose confirmed what his eyes told him. Jesus.
"Uh ... did you feed this to all of them?"
She nodded, and he looked at her other young ones with respect for their digestions.
"Well, you can't feed it to them anymore. It's gone way too high."
Her mouth became a straight line. "Not so high. It's well-salted; we've eaten worse. If it's that bad, the others would be sick and so would I."
He knew enough about homesteaders of whatever religious persuasion to hear what she was really saying: the sausage was all there was, they ate spoiled sausage or nothing. He nodded and walked back to his own seat. His food was in a cornucopia twisted from sheets of the Cincinnati Commercial, three thick sandwiches of lean beef on dark German bread, a strawberry-jam tart, and two apples that he juggled for a few moments to make the children laugh. When he gave the food to Mrs. Sperber, she opened her mouth as though to protest, but then she closed it. A homesteader's wife needs a healthy dose of realism. "We are obliged to thee, friend," she said.
Across the aisle, the blond woman watched, but Shaman was trying the book again when the conductor came back. "Say, I know you, it just come to me. Doc Cole's boy, from over to Holden's Crossing. Right?"
"Right." Shaman understood it was his deafness that had identified him.
"You don't recall me. Frank Fletcher? Used to grow corn out there on the Hooppole road? Your daddy took care of the seven of us for more'n six years, till I sold out and joined the railroad and we moved into East Moline. I member sometimes when you was just a shadder you'd come with him, behind him on the horse, holdin on for dear life."
House calls had been the only way his father could spend time with his boys, and they had loved making house calls with him. "I do recall you now," he told Fletcher. "And your place. White frame house, red barn with a tin roof. The original sod house, you used for storage."
"That was it, all right. Sometimes you came with him, sometimes your brother, what's his name?"
Bigger. "Alex. My brother Alex."
"Yeah. Where's he at now?"
"Army." Not saying which one.
"Course he is. You studyin to be a minister?" the conductor said, eyeing the black suit that twenty-four hours earlier had hung on a rack in Seligman's Store in Cincinnati.
"No, I'm a doctor too."
"Lordy. Hardly seem old enough."
He felt his lips tighten, because his age was harder to deal with than the deafness. "I'm old enough. Been working in a hospital in Ohio. Mr. Fletcher ... my father died on Thursday."
His smile faded so slowly, so completely, there was no mistaking the power of his sadness. "Oh. We losin all the best ones, ain't we? The war?"
"He was home at the time. The telegraph message said typhoid."
The conductor shook his head. "Will you kindly tell your momma the prayers of a whole lot of folks are with her?"
Shaman thanked him and said she'd appreciate that. "... Will vendors be getting on the train at any of the stations up ahead?"
"No. Everybody brings food on." The trainman looked at him worriedly. "You won't have a chance to buy the least thing until you change trains in Kankakee. Lord's sake, didn't they tell you that when you bought your ticket?"
"Oh, sure, I'm fine. I was just curious."
The conductor touched the brim of his cap and went away. Presently the woman across the aisle stretched to reach the luggage rack and take down a good-sized oak splint basket, showing an attractive line from bosom to thigh, and Shaman went across the aisle and took it down for her.
She smiled at him. "You must share mine," she said firmly. "As you can see, I've enough for an army!" He disagreed, but allowed perhaps she had enough for a platoon. Soon he was eating baked chicken, pumpkin bannock, potato pie. Mr. Fletcher, coming back with a battered ham sandwich he had begged someplace for Shaman, grinned and declared that Dr. Cole was better at foraging than the Army of the Potomac, and left again with the avowed intention of eating the sandwich himself.
Shaman ate more than he talked, shamed and astonished by his hunger in the face of grief. She talked more than she ate. Her name was Martha McDonald. Her husband, Lyman, was sales agent in Rock Island for the American Farm Implements Company. She expressed regrets at Shaman's loss. When she served him, their knees brushed, a pleasant intimacy. He had long since learned that many women reacted to his deafness by being either repelled or aroused. Perhaps those in the latter group were stimulated by the prolonged eye contact; his eyes never left their faces while they spoke, a necessity caused by the fact that he had to read their lips.
He had no illusions about his looks. But if he wasn't handsome, he was large without being clumsy, he exuded the energy of young maleness and excellent health, and his regular features and the piercing blue eyes that had come to him from his father at least made him attractive. At any rate, none of this mattered where Mrs. McDonald was concerned. He made it a rule—as inviolable as the necessity to scrub his hands before and after surgery—never to become involved with a married woman. As soon as he could manage it without adding insult to rejection, he thanked her for a fine lunch and moved himself back across the aisle.
He whiled away most of the afternoon with his book. Louisa Alcott wrote of operations done without agents to deaden the pain of the cutting, of men dying of poisoned wounds in hospitals reeking of filth and corruption. Death and suffering never ceased to make him sad, but needless pain and unnecessary death made him mad as hell. Late in the afternoon Mr. Fletcher came by and announced that the train was traveling at forty-five miles per hour, three times the speed of a running horse, and without tiring! A telegraph message had told Shaman of his father's death the morning after it happened. He wonderingly considered that the world was hurtling into an era of swift transport and swifter communication, of new hospitals and methods of treatment, of surgery without torture. Tiring of grand thoughts, he covertly undressed Martha McDonald with his eyes and spent a pleasant, cowardly half-hour imagining a medical examination that progressed to seduction, the safest, most harmless violation of his Hippocratic oath.
The diversion didn't last. Pa! The closer he came to home, the more difficult it was to contemplate reality. Tears prickled behind his eyelids. Twenty-one-year-old physicians shouldn't cry in public. Pa ... Night fell blackly, hours before they changed trains at Kankakee. Finally, and too soon, scarcely eleven hours after they had left Cincinnati, Mr. Fletcher announced the station as "Ro-o-ock I-I-I-sla-a-and!"
The depot was an oasis of light. As he left the train, Shaman saw Alden at once, waiting for him under one of the gas lamps. The hired man patted his arm, giving him a sad smile and a familiar greeting. "Home again, home again, jiggety-jig."
"Hello, Alden." They lingered for a moment under the light, in order to talk. "How is she?" Shaman asked.
"Well, you know. Shit. Hasn't really struck her yet. She hasn't had much of a chance to be alone, with all the churchfolk, and the Reverend Blackmer right there in the house with her all day."
Shaman nodded. His mother's inflexible piety was a trial to them all, but if the First Baptist Church could help them through this, he was grateful.
Alden had guessed correctly that Shaman would carry only one bag, allowing him to bring the trap, which had good springs, instead of the buckboard, which had none. The horse was Boss, a gray gelding his father had liked a lot; Shaman rubbed his nose before getting up into the seat. Once they were under way, conversation became impossible, for in the darkness he couldn't see Alden's face. Alden smelled the same, of hay and tobacco and raw wool and whiskey. They crossed the Rocky River on the wooden bridge and then followed the road northeast at a trot. He couldn't see the land on either side, but he knew every tree and rock. In some places the road was hard to use because the snow was almost gone and the melt had turned it to mud. After driving for an hour, Alden reined up to breathe the horse where he always did, and he and Shaman got down and pissed on Hans Buckman's wet lower pasture and then walked a few minutes to get the kinks out. Soon they were crossing the narrow bridge over their own river, and the scariest part for Shaman came when the house and the barn loomed into view. Up to now it hadn't been unusual, Alden picking him up in Rock Island and driving him home, but when they arrived, Pa wouldn't be there. Not ever again.
Shaman didn't go right into the house. He helped Alden unhitch and followed him into the barn, lighting the oil lantern so they could talk. Alden reached into the hay and pulled out a bottle that was still about one-third full, but Shaman shook his head.
"You become Temperance up there in Ohio?"
"No." It was complicated. He was a poor drinker, like all Coles, but, more important, a long time ago his father had explained to him that alcohol drove away the Gift. "Just don't use it very much."
"Yeh, you're like him. But tonight, you should."
"Don't want her to smell it on me. I've got enough trouble with her without fighting about that. But leave it, will you? I'll come and get it on my way to privy, after she's gone to bed."
Alden nodded. "You be a little patient with her," he said hesitantly. "I know she can be hard, but ..." He froze in astonishment as Shaman came and put his arms around him. That wasn't part of their relationship; men didn't hug men. The hired man patted Shaman's shoulder self-consciously. In only a moment Shaman had mercy on him and blew out the lantern and went through the dark yard to the kitchen, where, all others departed, his mother was waiting.
Excerpted from Shaman by Noah Gordon. Copyright © 1992 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted October 14, 2008
This book is one of the most captivating I've ever read. After having read and reread it, as well as other family members, I have had to obtain a new copy. The original has begun to fall apart. This book and the characters within have become old friends that I like to visit -especially on a bad day. They have told me of their stories time and again and I will never become tired of them.
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Posted January 28, 2003
One of the best books I've ever read. I keep recommending it to friends. Noah Gordon is one of the best contemporary writers. If you enjoy this one, be sure to find the first one in this trilogy about the Cole's - The Physician.
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Posted August 12, 2013
Posted April 20, 2011
Even better than the first in the series (The Physician), Shaman provides a well-researched picture of medicine in the US before and during the Civil War, woven into a highly engaging tale. The characters are - as one reviewer said - "like old friends." This is one you'll be going back to again and again to reread favorite sections. You'll also learn a lot about other major movements and issues in the same time period, and you can trust Noah Gordon to give you a balanced perspective.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 4, 2003
This is a great medical book which I found fascinating. It reminded me of 'Shaman Chai written by Jay Werba' (a Bangkok based book). However, I'd put this book way above that one. Why? Well, for one Jay Werba never deals with the sarcasm that is ailing him while this book provides some real healing points.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 20, 2009
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Posted January 10, 2010
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Posted July 22, 2014
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Posted November 13, 2012
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