Fortnight on Maxwell Street
by David Kerns
Bay Tree Publishing

"He’d found a voice that he didn’t know he had."

In 1968, Nick Weissman is a Jewish medical student on a two-week, obstetrics, house call rotation in inner-city Chicago. His patients are primarily poor and black, and for a sheltered middle-class son of local business owners who taught him to fear, this routine local training comes with its share of discomfort. Concurrent with Nick’s fast on-the-job training in teenage home births and breech deliveries, escaped convict James Earl Ray stalks and murders Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spurring violent nationwide responses that touch Nick and require life-altering decisions.

Set in the racially and politically tense late 1960s, this slow-boiling story is part true crime novel, part coming-of-age drama. Nick’s awkward, if optimistic, new adult steps into his healing profession contrast starkly with Ray’s ruthless, cold-blooded predation. As the two weeks pass, suspense builds with expert pacing until the inevitable collision of life-saving and life-ending forces.

Nick’s story is of the Butterfly Effect, the theory of interconnectedness where one small act can lead to massive global impact and vice versa. Just a young man on his way to grown-up work and life, Nick can’t help but step into history as it develops. He remembers where he was five years earlier when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Now, shaped by that collective American loss, he is again acting and reacting to events launched far away that still feel personal and timely nonetheless.

Ray, meanwhile, is depicted in terrifying, self-contained clarity. A hunter, sub-human and consumed by images of violence and hatred, this grotesque name from history blooms to life as a fully realized and all too horrible flesh-and-blood character. In the unflinching tradition of true crime narratives from Truman Capote to Jon Krakauer, Ray emerges both real and unthinkable, a wrecking ball gathering momentum to devastate the best of humanity.

Linking and propelling both stories is the scourge of racism. Nick’s form, born of ignorance, conditioning, and fear of the other, may appear to differ from the more obviously explosive conditions of hostility, rage, violence, and hatred. But the story suggests that all manner of bias and division wound a nation. America’s oldest sin offers endless ways to rupture social fabric seemingly beyond repair.

The author uses history to effectively contextualize the foundations and practice of racism for an authentic sense of period. By tracing the migratory paths of blacks and Jews and the evolution of their Chicago neighborhoods, he explains the reality but makes no apologies for the resulting societal divisions. Likewise, Nick’s medical program and its service neighborhoods come to life via detailed description, giving depth and color that root the story in its uniquely fraught time and place.

Certainly, this was a dark era, but through its aggressive candor, the story also offers hope. While violence and fear domino outward into society from the butt of Ray’s gun, Nick’s path reminds us that tragedy can be met with acts of compassion and courage. Character grows in trying times, and from the worst of human experience can come the perspective to reach out to the other, ask questions, give the benefit of the doubt, and find the common ground to do good.

Two weeks is nothing in a young man’s life, yet a split second can change everything. History chronicles national events and big names, but behind the notorious and celebrated moments in collective memory are regular people like Nick, who are both butterfly and tornado, caught in a storm, helping a neighbor, and incrementally altering a nation.

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