Richard Kraft is about as burnt-out as a fifth-year resident in pediatric surgery can be. Overwhelmed by his stint in an inner-city, public hospital in Los Angeles, he seeks to hide from the misery of his patients by avoiding any personal connection with them. Then he meets twelve-year-old Joy, an Asian immigrant trying desperately to learn the puzzling ways of her new culture. She speaks words that trigger memories from Kraft's own childhood as the son of a U.S. agent in Joy's country, and he loses his distance.

He performs surgery on a life-threatening cancer in her leg, pulling back at the last minute in an unreasonable fear that he will hurt her if he cuts too deep. The implied result: incomplete excision of the cancer and a death sentence for the child he now tries, unsuccessfully to avoid. His avoidance is repeatedly foiled by Linda Espera, the physical therapist with whom he is falling in love and who will not let him abandon the emotional needs of any of the children in Joy's ward.


Any summary of this novel is inadequate, as Kraft's story is played against a millennial survey of the history of the world's mistreatment of children that includes the Children's Crusade, the Pied Piper of Hamlin, the Lost Boys of Neverland, the evacuation of children from London during World War II, the deaths of children in the forests of Laos/Cambodia, and the carnage of rioting in today's U.S. cities. The world has always been hostile to children and childhood, and we collude with history by turning the atrocities of war, disease, and abandonment into fairy tales and epic. Kraft is placed in a position where he must face this realization not only as a person but as a physician who encounters the world's inhumanity to children on a daily basis.

This is a hard book to read, for the unrelenting brutality it reveals, for Kraft's own struggles with his emotional relation to his patients, and for the densely allusive and metaphoric language the author uses. Richard Powers, a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship for his writing who frequently tackles scientific themes that relate to the medical sciences, drew on the experience of his brother, a physician whose residency included working in an L.A. emergency room during a time of rioting. Operation Wandering Soul requires slow--and multiple--reading, but it repays richly.


Operation Wandering Soul was nominated for a National Book Award.


William Morrow

Place Published

New York



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