America the Beautiful in ruins, there are no cities, no skyscrapers in what has become a distinctly medieval landscape, travelers on foot and with laden carts, horses and donkeys replacing the frantic cacophony of a world reduced to the basic elements of survival. Knives, bows and arrows have replaced the stuttering menace of assault weapons, the steady roar of jets extinguished. Now weary folk trek eastward, toward the ocean where they hope to cross to Europe. Followed only by disease and want, superstition takes the place of science, the land demanding payment for its generosity, farmers valuable for their knowledge of the soil. In Ferrytown, the needs of travelers have bestowed a constant source of income for those industrious enough to build their town around ferrying and hostelry. Pestilence visits Ferrytown intermittently, the only recent victim thirty-year-old Margaret, whose own father died from the flux that now excoriates her every breath. Left to recover, or not, in the small, removed hut of the pesthouse, Margaret slumbers, fevered.
Brothers Franklin and Jackson Lopez have left their home in the west at the behest of their widowed mother. The brothers are notable for their size, seen as giants compared to other men, their muscles and brawn valuable barter along the way. When Franklin's aching knee will no longer support their journey without rest, Jackson goes ahead to Ferrytown, where he finds respite and sustenance for the night. But fate has other plans for Ferrytown, a great looming upheaval of natural confluences. Meanwhile, discovering the ailing woman in the pesthouse, Franklin shelters with her, the two forging an unexpected alliance; together they will travel across a barren, mud-slogged landscape, the rich natural resources of the old America long extinct. On this extraordinary journey, Margaret and Franklin achieve a closeness that neither could imagine before they met, a joining of wit and will that is their only comfort as they confront the perils ahead.
Civilization reduced to anarchy, menace is everywhere. Even the supposed safety of the Ark, where metal is anathema, exists partly through the fantasy that good intentions can prevail against force. Nearly lost to one another after being attacked by a violent band of bandits, Franklin and Margaret realize the extent of their isolation, savoring future intimacies while embracing a vision for the future. Crace's prose, while weighted and bleak, is filled with the nuances of hopeful beginnings, an appreciation for the simple, pure struggle for survival in a world informed by possibility. Franklin and Margaret are remarkable characters, putting me in mind of Margaret Atwood's stark prose, survivors who face the future and find it lacking, recreating instead the dreams of their forefathers, the pioneers who envisioned a new prosperity from the bounty of the earth. The Pesthouse is remarkable, beautiful and encouraging, life stripped to the essential, relieved of the cynicism of greed. Luan Gaines.