Servants of the Map

by Andrea Barrett

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

The title short story in Servants of the Map is set in the 1860s in the Himalayas, where a fictional English surveyor writes letters home to his wife about his work mapping the mountains and valleys of this dangerous part of the world and his fascination with its plant life. Five more stories range in setting from rural Pennsylvania in 1810 where the orphaned narrator has been taken in by a pair of women writing a children's geography textbook, to a resort community in the Adirondacks catering to tuberculosis patients in 1905, to an American scientist's backyard party somewhere north of Philadelphia in 1979. All have something to do with scientific advances and much to do with human relationships. Each is a separate whole, but subtle links connect them. References in one story to characters in another reward attentive readers with sparks of recognition and a sense of the way people's lives touch each other across time and distance.

Barrett's graceful prose does not call attention to itself but invites readers into the stories, letting the characters and settings emerge with loving clarity. The language suggests time and place without drowning readers in awkward archaisms: "What doesn't he tell Clara? So much, so much. The constant discomforts of the body, the hardships of the daily climbs, the exhaustion, the loneliness: he won't reveal the things that would worry her." In the 1979 story, "The Forest," an elderly Polish scientist reflects, "For the last decade or so, he'd been subject to these embarrassing misidentifications, taking young scientists for children or servants when he met them out of context. They all dressed so casually, especially in this country; their faces were so unmarked - how could anyone tell them from the young people who chauffeured him about or offered trays of canapes at parties?"

The men and women who advance scientific knowledge, we learn in Servants of the Map, are vulnerable, imperfect human beings, often drawn to their work by indirect paths that have as much to do with their longings for love or self-respect as with their passion for knowledge. (2002; 270 pages including an Author's Note mentioning the "historical characters in the fringes")

More about Servants of the Map at Powell's Books or

Other fiction about men and women of science:

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett (1996). See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013), about a woman who studies mosses. See review or more info at Powell's Books

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (1998), about seventeenth-century scientists at Oxford University and a murder. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about nineteenth-century explorers:

Spying for the Raj: The Pundits and the Mapping of the Himalaya by Jules Stewart (2006). More info

A Plant-Hunter in Tibet by Frank Kingdon-Ward (2006). More info

The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named by John Keay (2000). More info


Survey of India Discovers Mount Everest in 1852, about the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.

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