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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

The most pessimistic of Powers’s novels, Operation Wandering Soul uses a pediatric surgical ward as the microcosm that exposes what modern American society does to its children. At the same time, the book provides Powers the opportunity to discuss the status of children in society through the ages and to...

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The most pessimistic of Powers’s novels, Operation Wandering Soul uses a pediatric surgical ward as the microcosm that exposes what modern American society does to its children. At the same time, the book provides Powers the opportunity to discuss the status of children in society through the ages and to highlight many of the societal dangers of the late twentieth century. Carver Hospital is located in California, near Los Angeles, where many contemporary social and ecological problems are so exaggerated that they erupt there before middle America notices them.

Richard Kraft, thirty-three, is serving a rotation at Carver as part of his surgical residency. A former musician who, at twenty, traded the conservatory for college and then medical school, Kraft passed a peripatetic youth as his family followed its father from one overseas assignment to another.

Readers encounter the sensitive youth as he is being transformed into a ward-savvy physician. He struggles against his deepest human instincts to insulate himself from the horrors he witnesses in his patients. He strives consciously to wall off his emotions so that they will not be torn to shreds by the medical realities that daily assail him.

The children on Kraft’s surgical ward are a badly afflicted lot: Joy, a twelve-year-old Asian girl with a malignant growth above her right ankle, will lose her leg; Nicolino suffers from progeria and, at puberty, is already an old man; Chuck, a preadolescent, has no face; Tony the Tuff, an adolescent, had his ear lopped off; Ben, also an adolescent, is a double amputee. Visiting this ward is not calculated to lift the spirits.

Into this mix, Powers brings Linda Espera, part physical therapist, mostly saint. She loves these children and learns as much about each of them as she can. Kraft remains aloof. Linda, however, will not countenance his professional detachment. After Kraft snares Linda sexually, she changes his outlook, adding him to her list of those she must save.

Linda plans to compose a year’s worth of historical tales relating to the lives of children through the ages; 365 tales in all. Some of these tales provide the fodder for Powers’s riveting interchapters, which deal with such stories as the Children’s Army during the Crusades, the Peter Pan story, Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents, and, as the artistic high point of the novel, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

These stories add to Powers’s tale the historical perspective that makes his story frightening. They ask, “Has humankind learned anything from history?” while Powers’s contemporary account inquires, “Will humankind ever learn anything from history?” The answers readers inevitably reach are bound to be discouraging, which makes Operation Wandering Soul essentially pessimistic, although Powers suggests, however faintly, that hope ultimately may reside in one-on-one human relationships, in human understanding and perseverance.

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