Eccentric Characters in Nonfiction

January is a good time to reflect on the past year, and as I reflect upon my past year in reading, it is interesting to see what kinds of books I was drawn to. I try to read a variety of things, from kid lit to YA to adult titles, including fiction and nonfiction, so it is hard to generalize what I gravitate towards. But, I was surprised to see a theme in the nonfiction choices I made. It seems that I have an affinity for narrative nonfiction that tells a tale of someone with distinct eccentricity. I don’t know what this says, if anything, about me as a person, but here are a few of the titles I have loved that feature someone exceptionally unique (for good or bad).

Dr. Mutter'sDr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, by Christine O’Keefe Aptowicz. 9781592408702. 2014. Gr. 10-Adult.

I confess that the only thing I knew about this subject was that there was a very interesting museum in Philadelphia bearing Dr. Mütter’s name that I have always wanted to visit. I was not aware of how much of an innovator and humanitarian Mütter was, so this intriguing book proved to be highly informative.

Thomas Dent Mütter, like many American doctors of his time, worships the European doctors that were leaders in their field in the mid-1800s. He studies them, borrows from their knowledge, and tries to bring their success across the ocean to his own practice. Mütter sets himself apart from the field by performing what would become to be known as plastic surgery. He focused on what was then viewed as hopeless cases—those with facial burns so severe they could no longer close their mouths, as well as those with other deformities, including a woman who quite literally had a horn growing out of her forehead. His gentle treatment of these patients, in an era of no anesthesia (!), coupled with his surgeon’s skill, gave them hope of leading a more normal life.

This engaging biography of Mütter gives a glimpse of what medicine used to be like not that long ago. It gave me a deep appreciation for Dr. Mütter, and makes me want to visit his museum even more.

FeynmanFeynman by Jim Ottiviani and Leland Myrick (ill.). 9781596432598. 2011. Gr. 10-12.

Legendary theoretical physicist Richard Feynman is best known for his contributions to the development of the atomic bomb, but he had previously won the Nobel Prize for Physics for work in quantum mechanics. Despite all of his brainy accomplishments, he was not the stereotypical asocial egghead. He was a gregarious, personable, bongo drum-playing guy who seemed to genuinely love life.

Showing all of this in graphic novel format worked very well for me, as it gave just enough about his esoteric scientific endeavors without going too heavily into the mind-boggling science that he studied. One can learn a lot from studying the life of Richard Feynman, but what I came away with is the feeling that we all can learn to enjoy life and not take ourselves too seriously, whether we can cogently explain particle physics or not!

Pilgrim's WildernessPilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia. 9780307587824. 2013. Gr. 11-Adult.

This is a story about a lot of things, including the rugged and sometimes unforgiving wilderness of Alaska, a talented musical family who values privacy and freedom over all else, the National Park Service who the family has disputes with, and more. But the central figure in it all is the charismatic head of this family, who goes by the moniker Papa Pilgrim.

The “Pilgrim” family, by all appearances, was deeply religious, wholesome, and old-fashioned. But that was purely what was shown by Papa Pilgrim on the surface. In reality, Pilgrim was a controlling and intense individual that was hiding things from his past as well as present. His battles with the park service concerning what he could and couldn’t do while living on park grounds serve as the backdrop for family secrets to emerge. As you might imagine, things begin to unravel for him and his family as the story reaches its climax.

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