New Review: Dr Huxley’s Bequest (2017)

huxleycoverMichelle Cooper

FitzOsborne Press (2017)

ISBN: 9780648165101

The subtitle for this upper middle-grade book is “A History of Medicine in Thirteen Objects”, which is a useful additional description, and an accurate one. The author has clearly undertaken an extraordinary amount of research into medicine through the ages, and sharing this knowledge seems to be the main purpose of the book. But this should not be construed as a negative – creative non-fiction is a very clever way of bringing attention to the field, and by association STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), for young people.

Specifically young WOMEN, as the book’s protagonists are two young girls, given the unlikely (but not, I should note, completely unrealistic, given the state of academia these days!) task of preparing Dr Huxley’s bequest for presentation in the common room of a residential college of a university. When the informational notes accompanying the objects are destroyed, the two girls, Rosy and Jasminder (Jaz), are on a race against time to figure out what each of them is, and what each represents, in order to showcase them for inspection.

There was a lot to like about this book. As a teacher and librarian, I very much appreciated the portrayal of the thirst for knowledge and interest in a topic for its own sake, accompanied by a clearly positive take on the research process via the girls’ search for information about unknown objects. While this search often hinged on coincidental observations, this was usually an inciting incident that led to further investigation. It was interesting to see some gentle digs at academia in general throughout the book, which as an adult (and someone currently working in that field) I grinned at, though I imagine the intended audience may not pick these up.

I was impressed by the ways Cooper wove in non-Eurocentric perspectives as well. The book is set in Australia, identifying real places in a real university. Through some careful character work and an eye for opportunity, Cooper ensures readers are very aware that Western medicine is not the only view of medicine through the ages, and that often, Western medicine either lagged behind or was significantly influenced by advances in other areas of the world. Again, the younger reader might not even notice this as unusual, but as an educated and experienced reader, I certainly did and value these inclusions.

Rosy and Jaz were well-realised on the page, perhaps a little adult in some ways (although it would definitely be a mistake to underestimate any intelligent 13 year old…) but the style of writing also gave them a young “voice”, which I think is of importance to the story being told. It’s not too intimidating for the young reader that way, despite the sometimes heavy medical history content being unpacked.

The adults in the book were nicely fleshed out as well – Cooper has a true gift for writing incidental characters in a way that makes the reader get to know them, even when they are only briefly present, a knack I had noticed in her Montmaray books – which also helped the book avoid a didactic tone. It was valuable to see the different situations of the parents, cultures and backgrounds, delivered with careful placement throughout the book.

Writing creative non-fiction is a challenge, and Cooper has offered an exemplar of the genre here. The book is not perfect – some sections were perhaps a little overlong, some coincidences a little stretched, and the “mystery” in Rosy’s room felt a bit shoehorned in. However, strong characters and a believable purpose combine with a deft writerly touch to produce an interesting and engaging narrative that educates and, as I mentioned, provides a positive perspective on research and the quest for knowledge, and this cannot be undervalued. I can see this being picked up by young readers for pleasure, but I would also commend it to teachers to consider as a class text, due to its quality and relevance to learning. As an added bonus, teacher resources are available.

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