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The burning road
Benson, Ann.
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Publication Information:
New York : Delacorte Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
467 pages ; 25 cm
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Ann Benson's debut novel,The Plague Tales, was acclaimed by critics and embraced by readers, who have made it an ongoing national bestseller. Now she has written a spellbinding new novel that sweeps from fourteenth-century France to America in the year 2007--interweaving two gripping stories and two extraordinary eras. In this brilliantly imagined work of fiction, the author revisits the lives of two of her characters, physicians who are separated by centuries but united in their quest to uncover medicine's deepest secrets. In fourteenth-century France, a nation is still reeling from its loss to the English at Poitiers, one of the bloodiest battles of the Hundred Years' War. Pockets of plague still dot the countryside as physician Alejandro Canches struggles to make his way to safety, accompanied by his foster child, Kate--the illegitimate daughter of Edward Plantagenet. Enter Guillaume Karle, an educated member of France's rising bourgeoisie, who takes a shine to Kate, and becomes her protector when she and Alejandro are separated. Their struggle to reunite, stymied by circumstance and history, leaves both their fates hanging in the balance. Nearly seven hundred years later, in the year 2007, Janie Crowe--surgeon, scientist, dedicated historian--finds herself drawn into the intrigue of an unexplained and debilitating genetic disease. Enlisted by a mysterious young woman to help unlock its secrets, she seeks the wisdom of an ancient text for guidance against this terrible scourge, risking her future and her life for the sake of a greater good. Skillfully weaving the strands of these two gripping stories, interlaced with characters historic and imagined, Ann Benson has written a fascinating historical thriller that is also an intricate journey into the mysterious secrets of science: engrossing, thought-provoking, compulsively readable.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Two dedicated and courageous physicians continue their struggles to fight deadly disease in this gripping sequel to The Plague Tales (1997). As before, Benson moves back and forth between medieval Europe and an eerie vision of America in the year 2007 as she presents two societies separated by seven centuries yet joined by similarly insidious forms of oppression. Benson's protagonists are Alejandro Canches, an exiled fourteenth-century Spanish Jewish physician, and Janie Crowe, a twenty-first-century ex-surgeon, whose stories, for all their differences, run on parallel tracks. Alejandro is imprisoned by a former instructor, but he escapes to aid a peasant revolt in rural France. Janie uncovers some frightening genetic information, then finds herself up against deadly opposition as she tries to help a group of diseased young boys. Both physicians share many heroic traits, especially an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a steadfast dedication to science and learning--qualities not welcome in societies clouded by constant fear and cruel repression. Personal troubles involving family, friendship, love, and loss underlie both Alejandro and Janie's larger struggles, adding a psychological dimension to the social drama. Although the chapter-by-chapter switch between past and future can be jarring, the reader adjusts and soon begins to appreciate how the two stories both mirror each other and stand in stark contrast. Appealing on many levels, this exciting and complex tale will please sci-fi and historical fiction fans as well as readers interested in millennial themes. --Catherine Sias

Publisher's Weekly Review

Boldly conceived as two parallel fictional journeys separated by 650 years and linked by an ancient, mysterious manuscript promising miraculous cures, Benson's sequel to The Plague Tales aims to please historical romance readers as well as futuristic thrill-seekers, but suffers from this risky hybridization. The love story set in the 14th century fares best. While crypto-Jewish physician Alejandro Canches becomes involved in a peasants' revolt in France during the savage Hundred Years' War, his foster daughter Kate, illegitimate child of England's Edward III, falls in love with rebel leader Guillaume Karle. In Benson's less successful alternative tale, a medico-techno-thriller, Janie Crowe is a brilliant neurologist discredited in the aftermath of DR SAM, the incurable staph infection that recently ravaged the world and now, in 2007, is recurring. Crowe seeks a genetic cure for an eerie disease afflicting Jewish boys while juggling romance with two hunky-but-sensitive suitors. Linked to Alejandro by his book of cures, which has recently come into her hands, 40-ish Janie "smirks" and "snickers" at the wisdom found there; her disdain renders the uneasily intertwined plots of mystic healing and medical science implausible. Benson's medieval tale and its colorful characters, like a boyish Geoffrey Chaucer, are far more intriguingly drawn than her watered-down 21st-century cynics. But even the narrative set in ancient times flourishes its own unpersuasive details, such as an impossibly glorified earth-mother pregnancy and inconsistent dialogue. Perhaps these two stories would have been more successful as separate vehicles. Author tour. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Benson has written a worthy sequel to her excellent medical/techno thriller The Plague Tales (LJ 6/1/97). Janie Crowe and Alejandro Canches are back, and once again their lives parallel each other in different eras and alternating chapters. The common thread is their battle against disease, the bubonic plague in Alejandro's time and the ghastly mutated virus called Dr. Sam in Janie's 21st century. Alejandro fights for his life and that of those dear to him, while Janie uncovers a conspiracy that will wipe out more millions of the world's population. Benson has improved her characterization skills, and Alejandro's foster daughter Kate is finely drawn. The diseases become entities in their own right; against the background of violence and rotting corpses, Alejandro's and Janie's goodness shines through. The horror is not as blatant in this sequel, but there is an effective sense of creeping unease. Who knows what will happen to this fascinating pairÄhopefully, Benson is even now crafting a third story. Recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/98.]ÄLesley C. Keogh, Bethel P.L., CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

YA-This complex novel alternates between a story of survivors of the bubonic plague of the 1300s and the survivors of a modern-day epidemic who fear another. Janie Crowe, a neurologist looking for clues to an emerging catastrophic illness in the year 2007, acquires the journal of Alejandro Canches, a Jewish physician in 1358. It relates his attempt, along with his foster child, Kate, the illegitimate daughter of the king of England, to make his way to safety across France, rent by wars among its nobles. Alejandro and Kate are forced to separate and are reunited only after many adventures, but the young woman's story ends in tragedy. Meanwhile, Janie is trying to halt the outbreak of a new, plaguelike bacteria that scientists had thought was under control. Under the rigid controls of her society of 2007, she is constrained in her search and has to use unorthodox methods to continue. Aided by her lawyer and close friend Tom, Janie begins to have some success and realizes that she is falling in love with Tom in spite of her intense affair with another man. This tale has a happy ending, with Janie, Tom, and their associates isolating themselves in a facility deep in the forest. YAs who enjoy intricate tales of intrigue and adventure will be enthralled by these stories of two turbulent times.-Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1358 When had Alejandro Canches last read the language on the papyrus before him? It would not come clear to his sleepy mind. In Spain, he thought; no, France, when I was first here. Ah, yes, he remembered, it was in England. The letter from my father, left behind when we fled. He struggled to reach back into the memory of that time, to push aside the veil of the years, for nestled dormant beneath the bitter wisdom of manhood was the sweet eagerness of the boy he had once been, the one who had studied these letters by candlelight under the careful scrutiny of his family. He had found pleasure in the task, while other boys his age complained. Of what use is all this studying? they would say. Soon we shall all be forced to speak Spanish anyway. If we are not killed before then, he recalled thinking at the time. The first page was done, its symbols unlocked, the words finally revealed. He felt the pride of that small boy, and the hunger for praise that never died. He ached to the depths of his immortal soul to do more, but his mortal body seemed determined to forbid him that joy. Would he awaken later in a cold pool of his own spittle, with the letters smeared to ruin beneath his cheek? Or would the candle burn down while he snored with his chin on his chest, and spread its wax upon the leaves? He could not allow either. He carefully turned back the papyrus pages and read to himself again what he had translated. The symbols, applied with aching precision in the purest gold, ran right to left on the page. ABRAHAM THE JEW, PRINCE, PRIEST, LEVITE, ASTROLOGER, AND PHILOSOPHER, TO THE NATION OF THE JEWS, BY THE WRATH OF GOD DISPERSED AMONG THE GAULS, SENDETH HEALTH. In these pages, the apothecary had claimed, there were great secrets. And it was only because he was in desperate straits, the rogue had further said, that he would consider parting with such a treasure. So the young woman who called Alejandro Canches her père had reached into the pocket of her skirt on a trip to the apothecary shop and extracted the gold coin he insisted she always carry, should they somehow be separated, and boldly exchanged the coin for the book. Alejandro had sent her out for herbs, and she had returned with leaves of a different sort. She had known what it would mean to him. He glanced across the small dark cottage in which they made their home of the moment, and smiled at her sleeping form. "I have taught you well, then," he said quietly. Straw crinkled as the young woman shifted. Her soft voice drifted through the darkness, affectionate but chiding. "Père? Are you still awake?" "Aye, child," he said, "your book will not let me go." "I am no longer a child, Père. You must call me by my name, or "daughter,' if that pleases you. But not "child.' And it is your book, but I begin to regret buying it for you. Now you must go to bed and give your eyes some peace." "My eyes do not lack peace. They have far too much peace. They are hungry for the words on these pages. And you must never regret this acquisition." She rose up on one elbow and rubbed the sleep from her face. "I shall if you will not heed your own warning that too much use will ruin the eyes." He peered through the semidarkness at the young woman who had grown up so fine and lovely under his care, so straight and strong and fair. Only the barest hints of child-flesh remained on her face and fingers, and soon, he knew, that too would melt away, along with her innocence. But the rosy blush of girlhood still lingered on her cheeks, and Alejandro wished silently that it would remain just a little longer. She has become a woman, he admitted to himself. This notion was accompanied by a familiar twinge that he had yet to define to his own satisfaction, though he often thought "helpless joy" to be as close a description of it as he would ever find. It had lurked in his heart since the day, a decade before, when he'd suddenly found himself with this child to raise, and had grown as he discovered that despite his considerable learning, he was no better prepared than an unlettered man for the task. Although some men seemed to know just what to do and when to do it, he himself was not a man who did the work of mothering with natural grace. He thought it God's cruel trick that the Black Death had claimed so many mothers--it was they who had labored alongside the physicians to bring comfort to their dying husbands and children, and then because of their proximity had died themselves in terrible numbers. And though he abhorred the dearth of mothers and physicians, Alejandro wished that more priests had been taken. Those who had survived were the ones who had locked themselves away for the sake of self-preservation while their brothers perished in service. He considered them a thoroughly scurrilous lot. He had done his solitary best for the girl, without a wife, for he would not sully the memory of the woman he had loved in England by marrying for mere convenience. And Kate had never complained of her lack of mothering. She had reached the threshold of womanhood with unusual grace and now stood ready to cross it. As the motherless ward of a renegade Jew, she had, through some unfathomable miracle, become a creature worthy of awe. The lovely creature spoke. "Please, Père, I beg you to heed your own wisdom. Go to sleep. Otherwise I shall have to do your reading for you when you are an old man." This brought a smile to his lips. "May God in His wisdom grant that I shall live long enough to know such a worry. And that you shall still be with me when I do." He closed the manuscript carefully. "But you are right. I should go to sleep. Suddenly the straw seems terribly inviting." He moved the tome aside so it would not be splattered with wax, then placed one hand behind the candle flame and drew in a breath to blow it out. There was a knock on the door. Their heads turned in tandem toward the unfamiliar sound, and Kate's voice came through the darkness in a frightened whisper. "Père? Who--?" "Shhh, child . . . be silent," he whispered back. He sat frozen in the chair, the light of the candle still flickering before him. The knock came again, then a man's firm, strong voice. "I beg you, I am in need of a healer . . . the apothecary sent me." Alejandro shot an alarmed glance at Kate, who sat trembling on her straw bed with the wool cover pulled up protectively around her neck. He leaned closer and said in an urgent whisper, "How does he know I am a healer?" "He . . . he thinks that I am the healer!" "What? What nonsense is this?" "I had to tell the apothecary something, Père!" she whispered back, her voice almost desperate. "The man was inordinately curious and would not let the inquiry go! And it is not nonsense. You yourself have trained me in the healing arts. And so to satisfy him I told him that I--" "Midwife!" the urgent plea came from beyond the door. "Please! I implore you to open up! Your help is sorely needed!" Alejandro wanted simply to shoot a look of fatherly consternation at her, to shake a scolding finger in her face, to tell her she must never behave so foolishly again, and be done with it. But there was a stranger at the door. "Why did you not tell me this before?" he asked. She hastened to explain. "It did not seem necessary, Père--when the apothecary asked why I wanted such herbs as you sent me for, I told him that I was learning the healing arts! That was why he showed me the book. I swear, I said nothing of you." He saw fright in her eyes, and understood that she was frightened of him. It was a woeful realization, one that filled him with shame. She had been trying to protect him from discovery and please him with the gift of the book. His anger melted. "All right. What's done is done," he said. "Now I must think how to answer." Kate tossed the cover aside and rose up from her pallet, shivering in her thin shift. She found her shawl in the darkness and wrapped it tightly about her shoulders. "Why do anything at all?" she whispered. "Why not just ignore him--the door is strong enough. Eventually he will give up and move on." Another knock came, more insistent. They huddled closer together. "There is nowhere else for him to go, if he is being pursued." "Then we must open the door and turn him away!" she answered, her words barely audible. "He may not be so easily repelled." "I will tell him I cannot help. Surely he will not insist!" The knock was louder this time, the voice pleadingly urgent. "Midwife--I beg you, open the door! I mean you no harm . . . I have brought an injured man!" "A moment, sir!" Kate called back. And with her words, all possibilities of hiding were eliminated. She ignored the astonished look on Alejandro's face. "He has the speech of an educated man. He cannot be a ruffian." "That is no guarantee that he will not harm us. Or betray us. A peasant is not likely to know that we are sought. An educated man might." Their words were rushed and panicky. "But why a ruse--why not just capture us and be done with it?" An injury--work for his hands. All his physician's healing instincts rose up, overwhelming his better judgment. Often of late his hands seemed to tremble in need of the work of healing. And it was entirely possible that the man had come solely because he was in need of help. Alejandro's heart almost sang with the thought. He nodded his head toward the door and whispered, "God grant that we shall not regret doing this." There came more pounding, then pleading. "Midwife!" "Lie down on your pallet, Père," she whispered urgently, "and do not show yourself just yet. Let me speak for us." "I cannot allow you to face this man alone--" "Be calm, I beseech you! A midwife is expected, and that is what we shall present. Pretend to be infirm--if I need your help or advice, I will say that I need to tend to you. If I kneel beside you we can whisper to each other without his hearing what is said." "Aye," he answered quietly. "When did you become so brave and clever?" He hugged her to him for a few moments, cherishing the warmth she gave, missing terribly the small child she had once been. "May God protect us," he said, and reluctantly he went to his bed. Excerpted from The Burning Road by Ann Benson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.