Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712
The action of Sawbones Memorial occurs in the patients’ lounge of the new Hunter Memorial Hospital; the occasion is Upward’s celebration of Dr. (Doc) Hunter’s retirement after forty-five years of service and the anniversary of his first arrival in the town. Ross’s title deliberately suggests the hospital as tangible testament,...
(The entire section contains 712 words.)
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- Critical Essays
The action of Sawbones Memorial occurs in the patients’ lounge of the new Hunter Memorial Hospital; the occasion is Upward’s celebration of Dr. (Doc) Hunter’s retirement after forty-five years of service and the anniversary of his first arrival in the town. Ross’s title deliberately suggests the hospital as tangible testament, the illegitimate son who will succeed Doc, and the reminiscences of characters who recall salient events in the town’s and Doc’s lives. The novel has no conventional linear plot line; it is structured by dialogue, public announcements or speeches, and silent soliloquies, with characters’ repeated preoccupations making them otherwise identifiable. It is their recital or comparison of episodes in Doc’s career, their gossip, as well as their comments on present conditions which intermittently link the story’s episodes—each of which functions as a miniature play for voices. Doc’s clarification and explanations to various interlocutors further fill out the narrative, for Sawbones Memorial is an accumulating revelation of the central character, of his role in the lives of some townspeople, and of psychological disclosure, rather than a strictly chronological plot.
Dialogues about and with Doc reveal a substantial amount about his past role in the community. Harry Hubbs, for example, the former livery stable operator, was reclaimed from his unhealthy living conditions and bachelor squalor to an awareness that his life was going nowhere, to self-respect, and to useful service in Upward. This is the other side of the occasional charge that Doc took care that he got paid for his job, often in kind. He has covered up or redirected indiscretions and unsavory situations, but now knows that his relatively simple medical practice must bow to increasing sophistication and technology. The collective portrait of the man which emerges is of a practical but fair and very human individual, particularly evident in his concluding, unvoiced memories of his surreptitious generosity to Nick Miller’s Ukrainian parents, Big Anna and Little John. The characters recapitulate many instances of Doc’s apparently selfless care—which include speculations about his intermittent liaisons with Upward’s prostitute, Maisie Bell, and perhaps other liaisons elsewhere. One guest observes that “he was always on the side of the underdog, the down-and-outer,” and the application is as much economic as it is moral.
Both rumor and fact inform many of the events which the guests relate; Doc must set several versions straight. In this way, the reader learns the truth of bandleader Benny Fox’s mother, the shame of her premarital pregnancy and, before her suicide, her defensive social pretentiousness in Upward. Doc sympathetically remembers a case of rural incest and, unlike the typical, uninformed Upward citizen, is reluctant to assign absolute blame. He himself sought the love elsewhere that his deceased, frigid wife, Edith, denied him, “the moment of the body’s great white light”; she is another character who was determined to maintain proper social appearances. Stories and memories frequently create the portrait of an earlier, near-pioneer society, often suffering through economic and climatic hardship, and simply enduring; it is significant that Doc most admires Ida and Nat Robinson, the parents of Upward’s doyenne, Sarah Gillespie, and their survival of isolation and poverty.
As the stories move through the party’s duration in dialogue and the interior musings of Sarah and Duncan Gillespie, of the minister, Grimble, and of Hunter, there are a few indications of the passage of time. One guest is given a hospital tour by the voluble Assistant Secretary of the Ladies Auxiliary; public announcements are made; “Redwing,” supposedly Doc’s favorite song, is performed by an impromptu and reluctant trio (ironically in relation to his earlier marital problem, its theme is the separation of Indian lovers); commemorative pictures are taken (which suggest a unity which is not lasting); Doc makes an acceptance speech (for a gold watch, which ironically measures only time, not his true worth); good-byes are offered. Doc’s solitary passage home is marked by his memories of Nick’s parents, and of his estimable successor. During the evening there is no indication that the guests’ prejudices have undergone any transformation; their goodwill remains a superficial gesture. Resentments have been only temporarily suspended, and suspicion of the new doctor has been often acknowledged.