Tag Archives: Harvard University

The Technologists – Matthew Pearl

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Matthew Pearl’s The Technologists is a classic thriller set in late nineteenth century Boston, in the early days of MIT. The first graduating class of the upstart university, built on landfill and operating under principles that challenged the Harvard model of education, came close to not receiving their diplomas. Historically, that was because MIT was not granted degree-awarding authorization until a few weeks before the scheduled graduation. Pearl invents a plot to obliterate Boston, aimed at silencing MIT and reversing the progress of science and technology, that nearly takes down the university.

Events in The Technologists are wonky but urgent and understandable. The plot is constructed around science as it intersects with the darker recesses of the human heart and the combination is volatile. A thick fog and wildly spinning compasses send ships crashing into each other and the docks in Boston Harbor. A horrifying moment in the downtown financial district kills and maims in a nightmare of melting glass, windows that liquefy and encase bodies before hardening, clocks with their faces permanently melted and time stopped. And even more devastating incidents loom.

Students at MIT engage in constant banter and battle with their Harvard counterparts—there is no love lost between the scientists of either university. Pranks become deadly and class distinctions lead to violence. MIT’s lone woman student, Ellen Swallow, is assigned a solitary lab in the basement and private tutoring to maintain propriety and isolate her from the men. A scholarship student, a senior class brain and a Harvard humanities washout who is a natural engineer team up to expose the mad scientist who is terrorizing Boston. When they find an empty basement lab to hatch plans and perform experiments to determine the methods of the killer, Ellen, a brilliant chemist, is drafted onto the secret team.

Pearl has created a very good thriller and a very good book. The real history that informs some of the plot provides a convincing backdrop as the tension mounts. The effort to unravel the intrigue demands more than a whodunit approach from the reader. Science supplies the clues but elements as disparate as envy, the Civil War, suffrage, family dysfunction, probable Asperger’s or mild autism, professorial careerism, the properties of metals, disbanded secret societies, the evolution of street lighting, wheat mold, and the labor movement of the late 1800s are integral to the solution. What seems fantastical for the time is merely prototype to the commonplace of today. The satisfying battle between good and evil is, of course, timeless.

The Technologists is complex—full of twists, turns, dead ends, and slippery characters. It might keep you up late, as eager as any scientist to see what transpires once the test tube is suspended over the flame.

The Technologists: A Novel   Matthew Pearl | Random House  2012

Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks

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Caleb’s Crossing is another Geraldine Brooks triumph. Her work never fails to satisfy—she is a genius at taking a small sliver of history and holding it up to the light. The refraction reveals stories within stories in shifting and compelling images. This novel begins with the fact that the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University was a Wampanoag from Martha’s Vineyard in the late 17th century. From slender historical gleanings, Brooks spins a rich fiction of crossing boundaries, daring to slip outside predetermined roles, insatiable curiosity about what seems foreign and new, and the powerful appeal of near-pristine nature on an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

Bethia Mayfield is the bright, articulate, restless and conflicted daughter of Puritan missionaries who farm the island, called Great Harbor, and attempt to convert its Wampanoag residents. Her family is loving but as beset by disasters and tradition as any in those harsh, pioneering times. Bethia’s mother is a deeply religious but gentle soul who allows her daughter some free reign to protect her strong spirit. Bethia takes advantage of loose supervision to roam the island, discovering its delights and eventually encountering Caleb, an equally curious boy on the cusp of adolescence who becomes her friend and guide to the pantheistic world of his tribe.

Tragedy alters Bethia’s roaming and she blames herself for the loss and sorrow that colors her world. Deaths scar the Mayfield family. Bethia struggles with the frustration of eavesdropping on her slow-witted brother’s Greek and Latin lessons because girls are not considered suitable receptacles for academic learning. Hers is the appealing voice of a girl becoming a young woman  while trying to reconcile the knowledge of her quick intellect and heart with the traditions of her own family and tribe.

Ultimately Caleb, who is tutored alongside Bethia’s dull, mean-spirited brother Makepeace, is accepted to Harvard and all three—Caleb, Makepeace and Bethia set out for Cambridge, an arduous sea journey away. But Bethia goes as an indentured servant to “pay” for Makepeace’s tutoring to prepare him to gain entrance to the university. She turns her back on an easy life as the wife of a prosperous farmer on Great Harbor and tolerates all the deprivations of her servitude for duty to family and the chance to acquire some book knowledge surreptitiously. Caleb struggles with his acculturation—Harvard was no liberal bastion and his life there is hard, empty of the colors of nature, and physically debilitating.

Bethia’s voice is pitch-perfect for this story. The dramatic events on Great Harbor provide a fair amount of tension. The large questions about the cost of imposing one culture and set of beliefs over another are pretty obvious but the particulars of each life keep abstract issues from overwhelming events. Caleb’s Crossing is a fascinating glimpse of history painted over by human loss and longing, enlivened by a fatal clash of cultures and riveting in its strong characterizations and beautiful, meticulous detail.

Caleb’s Crossing   Geraldine Brooks | Viking   2011