An Acquaintance With Darkness


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Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Emily Pigbush is 14 years old. Her father was killed in the Civil War, and her mother is dying. Annie Surratt is her best friend, and Annie’s family is involved in a plot to assassinate the president of the United States. Emily has a crush on Annie’s brother, Johnny, who just left town.

When Emily’s mother passes away amid news of Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Emily plans to move in with the Surratt family while she finishes her schooling. Her uncle protests that he would provide a better home.

John Wilkes Booth shoots Lincoln, and a pall of suspicion is cast over the entire Surratt family. Annie and her mother, Mary, are arrested, but Johnny is nowhere to be found. He sends Emily a note that says he will return if his mother is in trouble. Annie is released shortly after, and Emily is forced to move in with her uncle, Dr. Valentine Bransby. He is kind, generous and has a beautiful home, but Emily feels stifled under her uncle’s authority. Besides, he is keeping a few secrets of his own. He keeps a patient, an old woman named Addie Bassett, locked in the house. He studies dead bodies, has a shed full of animal and human body parts and receives suspicious shipments of ice and barrels labelled as pickles. His co-worker, Dr. Samuel Mudd, was arrested for treating Booth’s broken leg.

The evidence mounts when a school rival, Myra Mott, tells Emily that her uncle is under investigation for body-snatching. Then Emily overhears a conversation between her uncle and one of his medical students, Robert. They’re planning to travel to Memphis to pick up burn victims from a riverboat explosion. Emily begins to suspect that all is not as it seems.

When Robert returns, Emily confronts him. He explains that the victims aren’t dead. He and Uncle Valentine are treating them. He convinces Emily that her uncle is not a body-snatcher. The two become very close.

Annie’s mother has pled not guilty but could still be sentenced to hang. Robert visits Mary in prison and succeeds in negotiating slightly better living conditions for her.

Myra Mott sneaks her classmates onto the National Medical College campus where they peek in the window of Dr. Bransby’s laboratory. Emily is shocked and horrified to see two dead burn victims laid out on a dissection table. Realizing that she has been lied to, Emily makes plans to run away with Addie Bassett. She almost succeeds. Using money that Johnny left her, she buys a ticket to Richmond, but when a girl is about to be trampled by a horse, Emily can’t help but intervene. She is injured, and a doctor (Robert) is called to attend to her. He takes her back to Uncle Valentine’s house where she begins to see the seriousness of her actions. Addie wasn’t yet cured, and without medicine, she will die of the same disease that killed Emily’s mother. And by not alerting her uncle when the bodies were spotted, she almost got him arrested. Robert despises Emily because of her disregard for her uncle’s work.

But then Marietta, a former patient of Uncle Valentine, who now assists in his body-snatching endeavors, falls ill. Emily convinces Marietta to allow her to take Marietta’s place in a body-snatching mission. Robert is so impressed with her ability to act under pressure and her desire to be helpful that the two become friends again.

Annie’s mother has been sentenced to death by hanging, and no amount of pleading by Uncle Valentine will change the president’s mind. Despite his promise, Johnny never shows, and Mary Surratt is hung with the other convicted conspirators in front of a crowd of thousands. Annie changes her name and leaves town, hoping to forge a new life for herself in anonymity. Emily’s dreams are bigger: She wants to be a doctor.

Christian Beliefs

Emily’s seamstress employer tells her that she has to find her summons from on high. Mary Surratt goes to Mass. Annie was sent to a convent for school, and Johnny wants to be a priest. Emily’s Protestant church transforms part of their facility into a hospital. Annie says that Protestants live their faith, but Catholics just talk about it.

Other Belief Systems

Emily’s former house girl, now a freed woman, sees omens and thinks there is a curse on H Street. Marietta seems to be able to read Emily’s thoughts. At one point, Emily and Annie think Uncle Valentine is a ghost. Many people say the Surratts have a serpent living in their breasts and that there is evil in their house.

Authority Roles

Emily’s mother would rather be a Southern belle than a wife and mother. She speaks negatively about her dead husband. Although he was a successful farmer, she allowed him to go to war believing that he had failed her because he refused to buy slaves, was unable to provide the standard of living she was accustomed to and fought for the Union instead of the Confederates. However, she stayed alive long enough to learn that the Union won so she could “tell” her husband that his death was not in vain.

In contrast, Emily has many positive memories of her father. He set aside money for her schooling and always told her not to make decisions before her mind cleared.

Uncle Valentine proves to be a good guardian for Emily. He is protective and has her best interests in mind but cloaks his clandestine activity in a web of lies and secrets. He believes that breaking the law for the greater good of humanity is a noble and legitimate activity. Ultimately, Emily agrees with him.

Profanity & Violence

Profanity includes d–n and h—. God’s name is taken in vain, and a variation of the n-word is used. Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. Men are killed and wounded during the Civil War and its aftermath. People sicken and die because of the lack of available medical knowledge. Dr. Bransby obtains, preserves and dissects corpses as part of his medical research. Grave robbers pretend to attempt to dig up Emily’s mother.

Sexual Content

Mary Surratt is in love with John Wilkes Booth, who is 20 years her junior. Teenage girls have crushes. Adults don’t let young girls go out alone after dark.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at

Additional Comments

Alcohol: Emily and Robert drink beer on a friendly date.

Suicide: Before Dr. Bransby found her, Marietta tried to drown herself.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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