For readers of Allan Gurganus and John Kennedy Toole, stories set in a small Southern town where a young Jewish doctor tries to bring compassion and science to a cast of misfits, loners, and eccentrics. A one-hundred-and-fourteen-year-old woman living alone, a deaf recluse, a Jewish alligator hunter and his New York wife, a gay African-American drummer, a woman accused of poisoning her husband, a homeless, transgendered person, a woman scarred by a dog attack, a Jewish shopkeeper with unfulfilled aspirations, a wife with an AIDS-afflicted husband--these are a few of the characters in these twenty-one linked stories from the diverse and vital rural culture of the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Struggling to wrest meaning from the tragic events of their lives, these characters create unorthodox views of God, the world, and justice, simply as a way to survive. Their stories revolve around an outsider, Dr. Jake Reuben, who during his stay in Coosawaw County is educated by the Lowcountry people into a new way of healing, and who learns that the benefits of a small measure of respect far exceed the contents of his medical bag.
Full of surprises, humor, compassion, and wisdom, Strangers and Sojourners is as entertaining as it is moving.
Twenty-one tales in a first collection, set in contemporary South Carolina but with a broadly stroked symbolism more at home in the gothic south of Flannery O'Connor. Here, theologian and novelist Engel (A Woman of Salt, 2001) takes us to Coosawaw County, Carolina Lowcountry, where a young Jewish doctor arrives in the early 1990s to practice among those patients other doctors in the area won't treat-poor blacks and whites, AIDS victims, the aged and the difficult. Dr. Reuben never appears as an active character but his perhaps Christlike saintliness is an underlying, unifying element here. The other doctors (except the oddly irrelevant black doctor) are narrow-minded and money-grubbing, if not downright bad. Christian ministers also come in for a drubbing in stories like "Philosophy of Education," about a woman who bucks her religious friends' opinions and nurses her dying gay husband, and "You Got To Learn How to Read Things Right," about Sister Gloria, a seer, who describes how her daughter's minister has robbed the joy from religious experience. Numerous patients are given monologues. Aged black matriarch "Queen Esther Coosawaw" uses the local dialect to tell the gratingly cute history of her life. In "Rat," a Vietnam vet talks self-deprecatingly about his life while Engel makes sure we recognize his generosity of spirit and sense of purpose. Engel's third-person stories are looser and more complex. One of the best, "A Better Man," includes some heavy-handed proselytizing about medical costs and prescription medicine abuse but then evolves into a genuinely moving account of a man's struggle to be "a better man than my father." Also moving because a character is allowed to surprise us is "What We Ought To Be," about Dr. Reuben's nurse, a familiar southern middle-class woman who transcends her stereotype. Engel writes with passion and grace but clobbers readers over the head with message. The result is easier to admire than enjoy. (Kirkus Reviews)