Subtitled Women Novelists of Color and the Politics of Medicine, this book draws on novels by eleven women to illustrate how physical and emotional states of health and illness are linked directly to social justice. The book is divided into two parts. The first five chapters deal with individual characters, their illnesses, and sometimes their healing: Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters, Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Toni Morrison's Beloved and The Bluest Eye, Louise Erdrich's Tracks, and Sapphire's Push are among the works Stanford uses to examine women who have become ill because of broken ties to their histories and communities, because of racial hatred, or because of domestic and sexual violence (see this database for annotations).

The second part of the book finds novels examining medicine itself. Stanford uses Ana Castillo's So Far from God, Gloria Naylor's Mama Day (annotated in this database), Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead: A Novel (annotated in this database), and Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents again to raise connections between patients and social conditions but also to ask questions about bioethics and uncertainty, medicine and epistemology, and how medicine might resist dehumanizing trends through the "myriad possibilities of communitas" (218).


Bodies in a Broken World is an important theoretical reconceptualization of many of these well-known writers' works. Stanford's selection of texts is superb given the two threads she uses to link them together: a call for medicine to attend to social justice as well as it attends to the body, and for medicine and society to reconsider health and illness and their relationship to the community. The bulk of each chapter is devoted to literary analysis as Stanford focuses on representations of illnesses arising from social factors (Pecola in Morrison's The Bluest Eye who learns to see herself through the eyes of a racist community as flawed), or on the corruption and greed contributing to an "infecting world" that includes medical institutions and practices (Butler's Parable of the Sower read as a critical dystopia). Stanford's readings are critical, thoughtful, and wonderfully articulated as she connects sick bodies to a sick world and calls for medicine to work against the social factors that are major determinants of health throughout the world.

Throughout the text her arguments are solidly connected to many currents in feminist bioethics, particularly the objection to how the concept of autonomy is privileged in much of the bioethics discourse. For that reason, but also because of the texts illuminating Stanford's argument, Bodies in a Broken World would work well in a variety of contexts that include bioethics, women's studies, women's literature, and medical sociology. Regardless of where it is read, the book succeeds in bringing the complex interplay between individual suffering and the community into focus as it pushes medicine to lift its gaze from patients to the "murky, messy, but powerful politics of medicine, calling for the complex process of individual, institutional, and social change" (222).


Part of the Studies in Social Medicine series, Eds. Alan Brandt & Larry Churchill


Univ. of North Carolina Press

Place Published

Chapter Hill, N.C.



Page Count