In the spring of 1968, Nick Weissman, 24, sets out on a rite of passage for his last year of medical school at Northwestern University. In keeping with the school’s tradition, he’s going to spend the next two weeks living in Chicago’s Maxwell Street neighborhood, on call to deliver babies in the slums and tenements around him.
He’s uneasy — no, he’s scared — and not just because he’s a middle-class Jewish boy venturing into dangerous streets with medical bag and stethoscope. Medically, he’s in over his head; he’s afraid he might kill someone.
At the same time, in Birmingham, Alabama, a man walks into a sporting goods store in search of a hunting gun. An escapee from the Missouri State Penitentiary, James Earl Ray is setting out on a different kind of journey: he intends to kill, and his target is the Rev. Martin Luther King, the charismatic American civil rights leader.
This is the story that unfolds, in parallel lines until, contrary to nature, they intersect, in “Fortnight on Maxwell Street,” a new novel published by Napa writer David Kerns.
This is the second novel for Kerns, a retired physician, who is now a full-time writer and journalist who covers music for the Napa Valley Register.
It didn’t begin as a novel, Kerns said in a recent interview. His first idea was to write a memoir about his experiences as a medical student at Northwestern, when, in 1968, he went into the Chicago ghetto for his mandatory two-week rotation at the Chicago Maternity Center.
“But the advice I got was to write it as a novel because real life doesn’t always unfold in a nice narrative arc,” Kerns said.
His own experiences became a point of departure for his fictional hero, Nick.
“There is some of me in Nick,” he said. “We shared some of the same experiences, but not all of them.”
Nick finds himself delivering babies on kitchen tables and in bedrooms, a choice preferable for many women to Cook County Hospital, where mortality rates for mothers and babies were higher than those for home deliveries, even by inexperienced medical students. Sometimes he has a student nurse with him; if there is a problem, he can call a resident or even the director of the program. He encounters a gang member on the streets, and then meets him again in the apartment of his sister, whose baby Nick has been sent to deliver. One man pulls a gun on him; another family serves him a lavish breakfast.
Unexpectedly, Nick gains the trust of a 14-year-old girl, pregnant with twins, who are in a dangerous breech position. Sullen and unresponsive with her previous medical providers, Blossom decides she likes the apprehensive, young med student.
“I want you to be my doctor,” she tells him. “I want you to be deliver my babies.”
Nick, alarmed, tries to explain to her: “I can’t. I just can’t. I’m a medical student and you’re a complicated delivery.”
“Why not? Medical students from here deliver babies all the time.”
“Breech deliveries require skill and experience, and so do twin deliveries. Blossom, I’m telling you, believe me, you want the best person possible, and that isn’t me.”
“If you can’t deliver them,” she asks Nick, “will you at least promise to be there?”
He doesn’t want to, but he promises.
A reluctant hero
Kerns said he also had not intended it to be a story about racism, but it becomes a part of his “reluctant hero’s journey,” especially as it’s set in counter-point to the ominous path of the anti-hero Ray.
“There is a spectrum of racism,” Kerns said. “There’s fearful racism as compared to hateful racism.”
As Nick goes deeper into the Maxwell Street experience, he finds himself facing his own fear of people who are different from him.
The irony, Kerns pointed out, is that both he and Nick Weissman were born not far from streets where the story unfolds. Maxwell Street, he said, is known to anyone from Chicago — in the early part of the 20th century it was a lively, predominantly Jewish neighborhood, home to immigrants, thriving shops and push carts and street music.
The migration of African-Americans from the South coincided with the “White Flight” from the cities. Nick’s family, prosperous restaurateurs, had moved out to safer, Jewish suburbs. He grew up sheltered; his mother’s prohibitions centered on “the perils of swimming after eating, of going outside with a wet head.”
All the same, Nick, whose mother is Greek, a Sephardic Jew, grows up keenly conscious of his own darker skin. “An olive skinned, kinky-haired Jew, he knew something about prejudice but his mistreatment had been playground stuff, teasing untethered to violence.”
His expectations and his reactions to what he finds in the ghetto are at war with his “declared and unripened philosophy, his liberalism ... He cared about poverty, at least the idea of it, but he had no personal experience of scarcity, of fundamental need.”
Kerns describes the experiences that alter “the calculus of his conscience”: “Walking into May Brown’s tenement flat, Nick had braced himself for a sad and seamy expectation — of squalor, destitution and dependency — and he was dead wrong. In the Jackson apartment, he was woefully right.
“Four children on a double bed, three laying the long way and one crosswise at their feet, but that was not what burned itself into his awareness. Four more children, younger ones, were in a doorless closet, asleep on separate wooden shelves. Each, bundled in tattered layers of towels, blankets and coats, was secured by a rope looped through a wall hook. In this modern American city, two-thirds into the twentieth century, this room looked like the hold of a slave ship.”
Nick makes it through his rotation, supported by Mary, experienced nurse from this harrowing world, whose determined grandmother got her an education. He is within a couple of days of finishing up his assignment when Ray closes in on his prey. At the news that Martin Luther King has been assassinated, Chicago goes up in flames. Nick, surrounded by the riots, gets calls from his anxious mother (“Yes, ma, I’m fine”). As the school begins evacuating the student nurses and doctors out of danger, another call comes in for Nick: It’s Blossom’s sister; Blossom has gone into labor. And there is this matter of a promise.
“I’m not sure I would have had Nick’s courage,” Kerns said of the hair-raising and deeply moving climax.
The genesis of ‘Maxwell Street’
After finishing medical school, Kerns came West to do a residency in pediatrics, and went on to become a professor and senior hospital executive at Stanford. After he retired, he and his wife, Gayle, moved to Napa where he began his life as a writer. He began working on “Fortnight on Maxwell Street,” in 2005. “It’s old enough to have a bar mitzah,” he quipped.
As part of his research, he returned to Chicago to immerse himself in the med school archives. Northwestern, he noted, ended the inner-city maternity program in 1973, he said. “It had a good run,” he said. “Seventy-eight years.” It was a decision, however, that he supports. “There was evolving concern that this was giving way too much responsibility to med students,” Kerns said.
He also went to Memphis to study the site of Dr. King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel and the boarding house where Ray stayed. “You can’t stand on the balcony where (King) was standing,” he said, “but I was able to look through the window where Ray stood and took his shot.”
For the cover, he was able to secure the rights to use a photo, taken by Fritz Goro, on assignment in 1954, to photograph the Northwestern students at work delivering babies in Chicago tenements.
Kerns will be doing his first public reading and book-signing at Napa Bookmine, 964 Pearl St., on Sunday, Feb. 25 at 2 p.m., and from there he’ll go on a book tour that includes stops in Chicago (and a reception at Northwestern), Iowa City, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Memphis.
Advance praise for “Fortnight on Maxwell Street” makes recurring note that a novel set in 1968 resounds with chilling recognition in 2018. Dr. Robert Reece (“To Tell The Truth”) observes, “this realistic tapestry of life and racism in 1968 is profound and timely,” while Jessica Grant, author of “Come, Thou Tortoise” calls it “absolutely, heart-stoppingly true. A book for our time.”
Kerns said that when he started the book, he thought primarily readers would be interested in med students’ experiences in the “Wild Midwest. I could not have imagined that 50 years later, we would still have so much racial polarization in America.”