The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

It’s mid 19th century and 12-year old Lucas Whitaker has just buried his mother, who like his father and siblings, died of consumption (tuberculosis). Devastated and alone, his pain is only intensified when he hears too late about a cure that might have saved his family. Burdened with survivor guilt, he leaves the only home he’s ever known and travels the countryside. After many nights of weary travel and sleeping in barns he eventually finds work as a physician’s apprentice. The doctor takes Lucas under his wing, and Lucas’ life is changed forever.

The book offers a fascinating look at medical practices and beliefs of the day. Consumption was literally consuming the population and conventional medical treatments were unsuccessful in curing the disease. People were so desperate to save loved ones they were willing to try anything, even digging up bodies and burning their hearts so the sick could breathe in the smoke. Ghoulish, but many people believed the practice could cure their sick. Lucas wanted to believe this controversial treatment worked as well, though the wise doctor gave it no credibility.

The author does a phenomenal job of helping you understand why God-fearing people could believe in and actually practice such a primitive ritual.

I love to give my boys books like this that weave history, period detail, rich characters, and good writing into an interesting story. However, beware this book is not for the squeamish; besides descriptions of dead bodies and heart excisions, there are other unpleasant scenes such as an amputation and a painful tooth extraction. I’ve got at least one boy in our family who has no tolerance for blood or dissecting anything that was once alive, so I won’t be passing the book on to him. Your budding scientists and future medical practitioners in the family should really enjoy The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker.

The book, first published in 1996, is the recipient of numerous awards including a 1997 Parent’s choice award.

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