Sisters of mercy
In the fall of 1803, a curious expedition set out from Spain, consisting of several doctors and nurses, the rectoress of an orphanage and 22 orphan boys under her care. Scratched into the arms of two of the boys was cowpox, a mild infection that had been recently discovered to confer immunity against its dreaded cousin, smallpox. Vaccinated in pairs, the boys became a living chain of immunity, carrying cowpox across the Atlantic and bringing protection from smallpox to more than 200,000 inhabitants of the Americas and Asia.
Not until the World Health Organization eradicated smallpox in the mid-20th century did the planet see a public-health program of similar altruism and magnitude. Remarkably, this early 19th-century act of philanthropy was funded by the feckless, cash-strapped Spanish government at a time when the wealth of empire was declining and Europe was struggling through the Napoleonic wars.
The expedition – named for its two chief doctors, Francisco de Balmis and José Salvany – has been largely ignored by history, with the exception of a few academic and medical studies. (History played a destructive part, too, by having Napoleon’s invading armies destroy Balmis’ home – and expedition journals – in Madrid.) Not much is known, for example, about the children who served as guinea pigs for the expedition, or about the rectoress who accompanied them halfway around the world.
But novelist Julia Alvarez (How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies) became intrigued by this floating story of homeless children and, more particularly, by the lone woman who went with them. Who was she? What kind of woman would do such a thing?
In her new novel, Saving the World, Alvarez invents a character for this woman, making her “the soul of the expedition.” Her first name was Isabel; her last name was variously misspelled as Sendales y Gómez, Sendales de Gómez and López Gandarillas, among others. Alvarez gives her an age (36) and a past not that unusual in an era when smallpox regularly ravaged the globe: near-death at age 16 and a face seamed with scars. Her family dead from the disease, Isabel covers her damaged face with a mantilla and goes to live in an orphanage, dedicating her life to caring for abandoned boys as alone as she is.
However, when Dr. Balmis comes to the orphanage, requesting a small army of boys for his expedition to the New World, Isabel’s circumscribed realm seems to widen. She agrees to provide the expedition with handpicked boys who have never been exposed to smallpox – but on one condition: that she be allowed to accompany them as their caretaker. The startled Balmis at first protests, then agrees, on a condition of his own: that she discard her mantilla. Thus, Isabel begins her new life with her face to the world.
Alvarez alternates her fictional saga of the expedition with a modern saga of a woman superficially like herself: a Dominican-American novelist married to a gringo who lives in Vermont. Like Isabel, Alma has sunk into depression, her world the size of her New England farmhouse, her children the books she can no longer seem to love enough to continue writing. Her husband, Richard, has gone off to the Dominican Republic to work on reforestation and AIDS vaccines, while she herself stays at home writing imagined scenes from Isabel’s life instead of the overdue novel she’s supposed to be finishing. Alma and Isabel both want to save the world, but they also realize that they cannot do so without saving themselves first.
Has she misrepresented Richard, Alma wonders. He isn’t saving the world. Just greening one tiny bit of it. The bit of it that has her country’s name on it. She should have gone with him if only for that reason. As for saving the world? Alma used to tell herself that writing was a way to do that, but deep down she has to agree with Helen that “you can’t use a tractor to weed the garden.”
Alvarez sets up a nice series of not-too-obvious parallels, with Alma donning a face mask at one point in unconscious imitation of Isabel’s mantilla and trying to convince a group of rebellious Dominican adolescents that they, like Isabel’s underprivileged orphans, could have a future. Alma’s world is more familiar, but it’s clear that Alvarez’s heart is with the leaky ships and rickety carriages of Isabel’s long-ago era. Isabel chooses, fearfully but recklessly, to make a new life for herself; Alma relies on her imagined character of Isabel to pull her through her own rocky patches. “Isabel’s story is keeping the knowledge of something alive in Alma, belief in a saving grace,” Alvarez writes.
But both Isabel and Alma, however lovingly delineated, have a hard time escaping from their roles as women in midlife crises, trying to create meaning for their lives. It’s Balmis, with a mercurial personality well-documented in what archives exist about the expedition, who has the most faceted character: eloquent champion of science, passionate defender of the vaccine, righteous savior of humanity, petty quibbler over housing and payment, arrogant snob in front of provincial governors. Balmis gets the expedition safely to America aboard the Maria Pita, then nearly aborts the entire project in a huff when he discovers that the vaccine has beat him to Puerto Rico. Pride goeth before a fall, and in Saving the World, it is the calming influence of Isabel that heals the expedition from the corrosive effects of male ego.
Repetitive as the story of the smallpox expedition may be – blurry parades of orphan boys, hours of rote vaccinations in public squares, the same errors of judgment made by Balmis – there are moments of drama that Alvarez overlooks. She turns Salvany, the expedition’s second-in-command, into a dreamy poet, then sends him off to South America and out of her book. He in fact went on to survive a shipwreck, only to succumb to tuberculosis after bringing vaccine to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. But Isabel wasn’t with him, so his story is cut short.
All the characters in Saving the World, in fact, feel truncated, whether they survive the book or not. Alvarez invests them with a strong sense of human frailty, of the capriciousness of everyday life and the need to build lives that feel bigger than ourselves. But it’s hard to get as close to her characters as we might like. It’s Alma who closes the book, but it’s Isabel who truly has the last word:
“I realized that I, too, was a carrier, along with my boys, carrying this story, which would surely die, unless it took hold in a future life.”