Ann Rinaldi

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An Acquaintance with Darkness

Rinaldi, Ann

Last Updated: Oct-16-2006
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel for Young Adults


The novel is set in Washington, DC in April, 1865. At fourteen, Emily is sole caretaker of her mother who is dying of tuberculosis. Her neighbor, Annie Surratt, is her best friend, though their mothers have been estranged for some time. Both families have deep roots in the South. Annie’s brother, Johnny, an object of Emily’s romantic fantasies, has recently left on a secret mission. The war is nearly over. Emily’s uncle Valentine, a physician, wants to take custody of her after her mother dies, but because her mother has also felt estranged from him, Emily resists. Still, after her mother’s death, she does go to live with her uncle, and learns that he (with his two assistants, one of whom is a woman who is 1/8 African American) has a lively practice among the poor and the African Americans who have flooded the streets of Washington since the emancipation.

Valentine is called to Lincoln’s bedside the night of his assassination, and participates in efforts to track down John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices, one of whom appears to have been Johnny Surratt, who has escaped to Canada. In the course of her time there Emily discovers that her uncle and his assistant are involved in elaborate, marginally legal, schemes to obtain bodies for study at the medical college. Emily, at first horrified by this discovery, comes to recognize the good that comes of anatomical studies and to sympathize with her uncle’s efforts to bring about legislation making the acquisition of bodies for medical research easier. Annie’s mother is hanged as an accomplice in the Booth conspiracy, Annie leaves town, and Emily comes to understand a great deal more about the harsh terms on which life must be lived in times of national crisis and ideological warfare. The story ends with her growing interest in medicine as a possible career path.

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