In 1804, a Spanish army surgeon named Francisco Xavier Balmis set sail across the Atlantic on the ship Maria Pita. With him were 22 male orphans, two of whom carried the precious smallpox vaccine in lesions on their arms. The rest of the boys were to form the human chain of carriers needed, in this pre-refrigeration era, to bring the inoculation against a deadly plague to Puerto Rico, Mexico, South America and even the Philippines and China. At a time when the ravages of smallpox were familiar to all, Balmis could easily be forgiven for believing that he was "saving the world."
Balmis' expedition earned him a place in history. But what of the orphan boys who actually carried the vaccine? And what of the lone woman in the expedition, Isabel the orphanage rectoress? How did it feel to be drawn along by the tidal wave of Balmis' intensely altruistic -- and egotistical -- ambition?
That question is the germ of Saving the World, from the best-selling Middlebury author Julia Alvarez. The complex plot of her fifth novel is almost as ambitious as Balmis' expedition, which actually functions for Alvarez as a story within a story. The novel's framing and dominant narrative, set in present day, allows the author to draw parallels between AIDS and smallpox; between Balmis and modern do-gooders whose motives may be mixed. Confronting a world where "Every good [is] threaded through with, at best, dubious goods," Alvarez asks us, "What does it mean not to lose faith with what is grand?"
Readers familiar with Alvarez will see obvious autobiographical elements in the heroine, Alma Huebner, a successful 50-year-old novelist who was raised in the Dominican Republic and now lives in Vermont. As the novel opens, Alma is embroiled in a "crisis of the soul, a dark night that doesn't have a chemical solution." The manuscript of her long-awaited "family saga" novel is overdue. But Alma finds she's more interested in writing the story of Balmis and the woman who accompanied him.
Alma's beloved husband Richard bears some similarities to Balmis: He works on well-meaning projects in the developing world for a company called Help International. When Richard heads to the Dominican Republic to manage a green center cum AIDS clinic in a rural area, Alma chooses not to follow him but instead to devote the time of his absence to "follow[ing] the vague, shadowy woman she has been avoiding" -- namely, herself.
Neither mission goes as expected. Alma finds herself "listening to the songs of the losers": tending a neighbor with cancer and grappling with the woman's bitter, war-veteran son and his disturbed wife, who "claims she's part of some weird ethical terrorist group trying to save the world."
Meanwhile, in a Constant Gardener-type scenario, Richard's AIDS clinic is compromised by its connection with an American Big Pharma company that's doing drug trials on the patients, and some of the younger, militant locals take offense to what they see as exploitation of the poor and powerless. Things have changed since the days of Balmis, when the vaccine-carrying orphans were willing to plunge into the unknown in the hope -- not always fulfilled, as it turned out -- of better fortunes in the New World.
When you pair Alma's story with that of Balmis, Isabel and the orphans, in alternating chapters, it's a lot for any novelist to take on. Alvarez succeeds in coaxing both plots along to a suspenseful, sometimes agonizing climax. Yet she doesn't quite make all the elements gel.
Some of the parallels Alvarez draws between her two narratives are obvious, even simplistic. For instance, Isabel is clearly Alma in petticoats, struggling with the same mood swings between girlish idealism and depression. Isabel finds purpose when she becomes an advocate for the rights of her orphan charges, while Alma finds that same purpose in imagining the forgotten woman's story.
Other, potentially more interesting parallels are missing. Balmis is by far the most intriguing character in the 19th-century narrative. This control-freak humanitarian treats vaccination as if it were a competition, fuming when someone manages to inoculate the colony of Puerto Rico before he does. None of the modern would-be world saviors has this sort of depth. Richard remains a shadowy figure; we know him primarily as Alma's support system. Richard's boss at Help International is morally ambiguous; it's suggested that he may be overly complicit with corporate interests. But, again, we see him only through Alma, who muses, "The man is either a saint or a master of spin." If there's one thing the story of Balmis teaches us, it's that a saint and a master of spin can be one and the same.
Ultimately, Saving the World is most powerful as a meditation on the role of the storyteller. As Alma puts it, not everyone can or should try to save the world: "Someone has to go to the edge and look and come back and tell about it." That's the writer's job. But, while Saving the World introduces us to many characters who are on the edge, it develops few of them. Tantalizing similarities exist between the Dominican "terrorists" and the shell-shocked Vermonters, but the characters are so sketchy that these parallels never get developed beyond common verbiage. (Both groups like to use "infection" as a metaphor.)
Reservations aside, Alvarez's prose sometimes rises to poetic heights. And the quandaries she explores aren't going away anytime soon. The reader will be left with an indelible image of those 22 orphans, bastard children deemed worthless by imperial Spain, without whose willing cooperation smallpox might not have been eradicated in the New World. Alvarez suggests that it takes many small sacrifices, not a few grand gestures, to save the world.
From Saving the World:
"Maybe you needed him [Richard] out of your hair so you could hear yourself think," Helen offers. For a moment, Alma wonders if Helen is talking about her own solitary life -- her difficult husband, who disappeared ages ago; her on-again, off-again son who reappears whenever he wants. "Sometimes you need to be alone so you can hear that quiet, little voice of God inside." Helen's voice is hushed, as if she's hearing it now.
"Hmm," Alma puzzles. Did she really stay to hear the baffling, painful spirit of the universe inside her? "It's just that I lied to him, Helen. I told him I was staying to finish my novel."
Helen smiles, bemused again. "He'll understand," she says. "Goodness gracious, saving the world isn't for everybody. You've got your own work to do."
Has she misrepresented Richard? Alma wonders. He isn't saving the world. Just greening one tiny bit of it. The bit of it that has her country's name on it. She should have gone with him if only for that reason. As for saving the world? Alma used to tell herself that writing was a way to do that, but deep down she has to agree with Helen that "you can't use a tractor to weed the garden." Literature does one thing; activism and good works do another. But Alma doesn't want to keep plaguing Helen with her self-doubts right now, especially when her old friend doesn't seem herself. If nothing else, Alma wants to give Helen the pleasure of thinking that right here, right now, all's well with the two of them anyhow.
They sit together, quietly sipping tea, the muted sun coming in through the curtains and giving the paneled room a reassuringly old-fashioned sepia look. All is well. "It's good to be here, Helen." Alma reaches for the spotted hand, which startles at first at her touch, but then holds Alma's hand back.