“David Kerns’ Fortnight on Maxwell Street is a suspenseful medical odyssey that dances along a high wire of racial tension during a tragic and historic American moment.”
––James McManus, author of New York Times Bestseller Positively Fifth Street
“Kerns masterfully stitches his young and reluctant medical hero’s story together with the fascinating and dark journey of James Earl Ray as he stalks and murders Martin Luther King Jr. This realistic tapestry of life and racism in America in 1968 is profound and timely.”
––Robert M. Reece, M.D., author of To Tell The Truth.
“A propulsive, harrowing, and moving read, from beginning to end. David Kerns delivers a nuanced portrayal of racism as a spectrum disease. We see how heroes and villains are made, how character is forged in the crucible of a historical moment. Fortnight on Maxwell Street rings absolutely, heart-stoppingly true. A book for our time.”
––Jessica Grant, author of Come, Thou Tortoise
“With craft and compassion, David Kerns has written a gripping story of one young medical student’s journey into America’s racial divide in 1968 Chicago.”
––Hillary Homzie, author of Queen of Likes and The Hot List.
“David Kerns’ thrilling and intelligent novel follows a medical student’s inner-city trial-by-fire in a time of national peril.”
––Sasha Paulsen, author of the forthcoming Dancing on the Spider’s Web
In Kerns’ (Standard of Care, 2007) latest novel, a student learns much more than obstetrics during a baptism by fire on Chicago’s West Side in the fateful spring of 1968.
Every med student in Northwestern University’s program must spend two weeks at the Chicago Maternity Center, whose mission is to serve a deeply poor, predominantly African-American area of the city, overseeing pregnancies and delivering babies. The students are pushed to their physical limits, and some are scared about working in a potentially threatening neighborhood—and about their own competence as doctors. Nick Weissman, a Jewish-American student, is flush with idealism and liberal political views; he’s tested while earning the trust of Blossom Amos, a sullen, withdrawn 14-year-old African-American girl, pregnant with twins. A parallel story line follows the notorious James Earl Ray, who escapes from a Missouri prison, travels all across the South and eventually to Memphis—the site of his assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which sets off horrific riots in Chicago and elsewhere. In this chaos, Nick and the others are about to evacuate for their own safety. Then comes word that Blossom is in labor, and Nick makes a fateful decision to help her, against all odds.
Kerns is an engaging writer who gives the story such momentum that it fairly gallops to its conclusion. He also effectively draws on aspects of his own life, including two weeks that he spent working at the Chicago Maternity Center in real life; all of the novel’s gritty details ring as true as they should. Some elements are fictional, though, such as the Abrafo, which is said to be the most terrifying of the local African-American gangs. Also, Nick and James Earl Ray never meet—but the fact that they serve as vectors of good and evil makes for an inspired plot device.
US REVIEW OF BOOKS
“In 1968, Nick Weissman is a Jewish medical student on a two-week, obstetrics, house call rotation in inner-city Chicago. His patients are primarily poor and black, and for a sheltered middle-class son of local business owners who taught him to fear, this routine local training comes with its share of discomfort. Concurrent with Nick’s fast on-the-job training in teenage home births and breech deliveries, escaped convict James Earl Ray stalks and murders Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spurring violent nationwide responses that touch Nick and require life-altering decisions.
Set in the racially and politically tense late 1960s, this slow-boiling story is part true crime novel, part coming-of-age drama. Nick’s awkward, if optimistic, new adult steps into his healing profession contrast starkly with Ray’s ruthless, cold-blooded predation. As the two weeks pass, suspense builds with expert pacing until the inevitable collision of life-saving and life-ending forces.
Nick’s story is of the Butterfly Effect, the theory of interconnectedness where one small act can lead to massive global impact and vice versa. Just a young man on his way to grown-up work and life, Nick can’t help but step into history as it develops. He remembers where he was five years earlier when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Now, shaped by that collective American loss, he is again acting and reacting to events launched far away that still feel personal and timely nonetheless.
Ray, meanwhile, is depicted in terrifying, self-contained clarity. A hunter, sub-human and consumed by images of violence and hatred, this grotesque name from history blooms to life as a fully realized and all too horrible flesh-and-blood character. In the unflinching tradition of true crime narratives from Truman Capote to Jon Krakauer, Ray emerges both real and unthinkable, a wrecking ball gathering momentum to devastate the best of humanity.
Linking and propelling both stories is the scourge of racism. Nick’s form, born of ignorance, conditioning, and fear of the other, may appear to differ from the more obviously explosive conditions of hostility, rage, violence, and hatred. But the story suggests that all manner of bias and division wound a nation. America’s oldest sin offers endless ways to rupture social fabric seemingly beyond repair.
The author uses history to effectively contextualize the foundations and practice of racism for an authentic sense of period. By tracing the migratory paths of blacks and Jews and the evolution of their Chicago neighborhoods, he explains the reality but makes no apologies for the resulting societal divisions. Likewise, Nick’s medical program and its service neighborhoods come to life via detailed description, giving depth and color that root the story in its uniquely fraught time and place.
Certainly, this was a dark era, but through its aggressive candor, the story also offers hope. While violence and fear domino outward into society from the butt of Ray’s gun, Nick’s path reminds us that tragedy can be met with acts of compassion and courage. Character grows in trying times, and from the worst of human experience can come the perspective to reach out to the other, ask questions, give the benefit of the doubt, and find the common ground to do good.
Two weeks is nothing in a young man’s life, yet a split second can change everything. History chronicles national events and big names, but behind the notorious and celebrated moments in collective memory are regular people like Nick, who are both butterfly and tornado, caught in a storm, helping a neighbor, and incrementally altering a nation.”