Servants of the Map

“These stories possess a wonderful clarity and ease, the serene authority of a writer working at the very height of her powers.” — New York Times Book Review

Finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize

A New York Times Notable Selection

Servants of the Map


Ranging across two centuries, and from the western Himalaya to an Adirondack village, these wonderfully imagined stories and novellas travel the territories of yearning and awakening, of loss and unexpected discovery. A mapper of the highest mountain peaks realizes his true obsession. A young woman afire with scientific curiosity must come to terms with a romantic fantasy. Brothers and sisters, torn apart at an early age, are beset by dreams of reunion. Throughout, Barrett’s most characteristic theme—the happenings in that borderland between science and desire—unfolds in the diverse lives of unforgettable human beings. Although each richly layered tale stands independently, readers of Ship Fever (National Book Award winner) and Barrett’s extraordinary novel The Voyage of the Narwhal, will discover subtle links both among these new stories and to characters in the earlier works.


“Like fossil-hunters, most of Barrett’s characters are looking for a way to piece together fragments of the past; when, in the last story, a cherished belonging of one character shows up in the life of another, we feel rescued and redeemed.” — The New Yorker

“One understands how the intricacies of the complex phenomena Barrett has studied have possessed her imagination… Gorgeous, illuminating, entrancing fiction.” — Kirkus (starred review)

“Luminous…Each [story] is rich and independent and beautiful and should draw Barrett many new admirers.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)


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    The Air We Breathe

    “An evocative panorama of America… on the cusp of enormous change.” — Newsday

    The Air We Breathe


    In the fall of 1916, America prepares for war—but in the community of Tamarack Lake, the focus is on the sick. Wealthy tubercular patients live in private cure cottages; charity patients, mainly immigrants, fill the large public sanatorium. Prisoners of routine, they take solace in gossip, rumor, and—sometimes—secret attachments. But when the well-meaning efforts of one enterprising patient lead to a tragic accident and a terrible betrayal, the war comes home, bringing with it a surge of anti-immigrant prejudice and vigilante sentiment.


    “A marvel of intelligent design, and a truly original cautionary tale, from one of the most interesting and unconventional of all contemporary American writers.” — Kirkus (starred review)

    “Barrett’s artistry consists of a near-perfect equipoise between smooth storytelling and the suggestion of larger truths.” — Newsday

    “Barrett’s writing has a quality of reflective mildness, a restraint which some might call quiet…. There is an elegance of tone, but an enormous amount happens. The Air We Breathe is turbulent and dramatic, full of longing and death and lust, the yearning to cover one’s own life and way in the world.” — Boston Globe

    “A large cast of characters comes to vivid life…. [Barrett] allows the murmuring voices of those who have watched and judged the main characters to swell into a single epiphany of regret and contrition…. This rueful Bildungsroman… boldly replaces the conventional saga of a callow youth’s education with the drama of a group of fallible adults who, buffeted by ugly political winds unloosed by a far-off war, betray their best instincts but are mature enough to eventually acknowledge their mistake. Barrett draws no facile parallels, but American readers will find uncomfortable contemporary resonance in her historical novel.” — Los Angeles Times

    “Details of New York tenements and of the sanitarium’s regime are vivid and engrossing.” — Publishers Weekly


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      “Her characters’ thirst for discovery is contagious, and every story in Archangel is suffused with the most miraculous horizon light.” — Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove

      Finalist for the Story Prize


      During the summer of 1908, twelve-year-old Constantine Boyd is witness to an explosion of home-spun investigation—from experiments with cave-dwelling fish without eyes to scientifically bred crops to motorized bicycles and the flight of an early aeroplane. In 1920, a popular science writer and young widow tries, immediately after the bloodbath of the First World War, to explain the new theory of relativity to an audience (herself included) desperate to believe in an “ether of space” housing spirits of the dead. Half a century earlier, in 1873, a famous biologist struggles to maintain his sense of the hierarchies of nature as Darwin’s new theory of evolution threatens to make him ridiculous in the eyes of a precocious student. The twentieth-century realms of science and war collide in the last two stories, as developments in genetics and X-ray technology that had once held so much promise fail to protect humans—among them, a young American soldier, Constantine Boyd, sent to Archangel, Russia, in 1919—from the failures of governments and from the brutality of war.


      “At last! It’s finally here: the astonishing new collection from that genius-enchantress, Andrea Barrett. Who but Barrett can take on the inscrutable elegance of the cosmos and the messy complexity of the human heart in a single story? In her joy-to-read prose, with scientific precision and warm insight, Barrett translates the unknown into our world of reference. Her characters’ thirst for discovery is contagious, and every story in Archangel is suffused with the most miraculous horizon light.” — Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove

      “The award-winning author returns with another collection of stories distinguished by uncommon scope and depth…The characters are never secondary to (or mere mouthpieces for) the provocative ideas, as the stories explore relationships among mentors and students, scientific rivals, romantic attractions…Barrett’s stories rank with the best.” — Kirkus (starred review)

      “This book’s universe is very full… “The Island” is a testament to cutting-edge scientific thought in the face of strong resistance. And Ms. Barrett has the backbone to stage such challenges credibly and compellingly.” — New York Times

      “Andrea Barrett’s elegant new story collection, Archangel, feels like a dispatch from the moving front of scientific discovery.” — Boston Globe

      “Does anyone write with a calmer authority than Andrea Barrett?… In casting understanding on both sides of an issue and by recognizing how precious open debate it, Barrett brings a sense of humanity to bear on her stories.” — Chicago Tribune

      “When you read her elegant, thought-provoking work, you travel back to a time of possibility and wonder that you never want to leave.” — Miami Herald


        Family tree done during the writing of Archangel


        Family tree endpapers from The Air We Breathe, with Barrett’s additions during the writing of Archangel.

        Extra large version


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        News & Events

        Winner of the 2015 Rea Award for the Short Story

        Andrea Barrett


        Andrea Barrett is the winner of the 2015 Rea Award for the Short Story. The annual $30,000 Rea Award recognizes a living U. S. or Canadian writer. Rea established the award to honor a writer who has made a significant contribution to the discipline of the short story as an art form.

        This year’s jurors, noted writers T. C. Boyle, Bill Henderson and Karen Shepard, offered the following citation:

        In three collections of stories and six novels, Andrea Barrett has continually enlarged the geography of her imagination, and her lucky readers have been the beneficiaries of those explorations, experiencing, as her characters so often do, the way our own small pasts bear on our own small present. Barrett offers us the news from other worlds as a way to understand our own. In settings ranging all over the globe and from all different time periods, she specializes in examining what’s particularly human in the science we do, bringing those traditionally disparate worlds to bear on each other in surprising and moving ways. And she accomplishes those broad thematic implications with a precise and quietly intelligent style that surprises and disturbs and gratifies. That deceptive formal modesty keeps our focus on the world at the fiction’s heart and produces testimonies designed to celebrate the attested rather than the attester. The result has been a body of stories that like all great fiction expands our knowledge, brings us more fully into contact with the suffering of others, and supplies intense and gorgeous pleasure.

        “Wonders of the Shore” published in Tin House

        Tin House 66


        “Wonders of the Shore” is featured in Tin House #66, Winter 2015.

        “The Accident” published in the Harvard Review

        Harvard Review 48


        “The Accident” appears in Harvard Review 48, Fall 2015.

        “The Years and The Years” published in AGNI 82

        AGNI 82


        “The Years and The Years,” an essay on writing, was published in AGNI 82, November 2015.

        Archangel chosen as a finalist for the Story Prize



        Archangel was selected as one of three finalists for the tenth annual Story Prize.

        Archangel featured in The New York Review of Books

        Heroines in the Garden

        Heroines in the Garden discusses the stories in Archangel, groundbreaking theories, and the pain of change: “While we do not regret the knowledge, we also know that every gain is also a loss, here the loss of the certainty that everything makes sense because it is all from the mind of the creator, arising from a single cause. Moreover, profound uncertainties about love, and about the possibility of happiness, beset the characters in these stories even as they search for clarity in new knowledge and understanding of science. Like Darwin, and Einstein, and all her other heroes, Barrett the storyteller pulls us relentlessly away from false comforts, into the dazzling, often chaotic, world as it really is.” Read the full article.

        “The Particles” selected for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013

        The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013


        “The Particles” was published in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories, selected by editor Laura Furman and with essays by Lauren Groff, Edith Pearlman, and Jim Shepard on their favorite stories.


        • The Believer, June 2009

          Any kind of serious work is full of drama and passion, yearning and disappointment, complicated choices, sacrifices, moments of bliss—and science is serious, wonderful work.”

        • One Story, December 20, 2008

          “It’s typical for me to be delving into several apparently unrelated areas at once; our lives and our interests aren’t divided into the categories of academia or card-catalogs and so I try not to let my characters’ interests be shoe-horned into those boxes either.”

        • Ploughshares, Fall 2007

          “Teaching stories, later on, made me realize that actually the stories I liked best, and wanted to write, were ones that did nearly as much as a novel but in a smaller space.”

        • The Paris Review, Winter 2003

          “What it feels like is that slowly, over time—a bit more with each book—I trusted my ability to bring alive characters from other times and places, who were interested and involved in things beyond the narrow confines of my life experience.”

        • New York Times, June 6, 2002

          ”Scientific questions are very precise and very directed. A scientist poses problems that can be answered if one works hard enough.” In contrast, writers ”pose question after question, and none of them get answered,” she continued, adding, ”A lot of what I write about in science and history serves as a metaphor for the discoveries we make as writers.”

        Audio podcast
        • To the Best of Our Knowledge, July 2014

          “[What starts me writing a story] is not an idea—what is the ether of space?—it’s an image related to that idea. So it’s an image of, in this case, these gigantic, whirling machines made of iron that Sir Oliver Lodge used… It’s jellyfish pulsing in the ocean, and a line drawing of a gigantic jellyfish from the 1870s. That image leads me into the idea, and those two things together lead me to the characters in a story.”

        • Studio 360, November 2013

          “That idea of – what is evidence, how much evidence or data do you need to convince someone of a politically difficult or emotionally difficult position, that’s what really fascinates me, and I think that’s what drove some of the stories in [Archangel].”

        • Key West Literary Seminar, 2009

          “And because nobody was watching and there was no risk involved, what I chose to write about was the thing I actually loved the most but had never dared to write fiction about before, because who writes fiction about old dead scientists?”

        • NPR, 2007

          “Infectious disease exists at this intersection between real science, medicine, public health, social policy, and human conflict. There’s a tendency of people to try and make a group out of those who have the disease. It makes people who don’t have the disease feel safer. So I think it’s that moment that really interests me.”

        • The Story Prize Reading and Awards, March 2014

          “One of the things [the stories in Archangel] seemed to to me to have in common was that sense [of] the great passion and love we can have for a theory that will turn out to be completely wrong – we can’t know that when we’re working on something, we love a wrong theory the way we love a right theory; it’s history that makes that judgment. But the people who have spent their whole life working so hard on something that turned out not to turn out well, that’s a difficult path.”

        • The Drexel Interview, 2007, Part I

          “It turns out to be a working scientist you need a whole other set of skills that I was really unaware of – you need to be able to make hypotheses, you need to be able to look at the world and be able to ask questions about it that are answerable. I look at the world and ask questions about it that aren’t answerable (laughs). And that’s not science, it’s metaphysics – or it’s fiction. It actually has to do with writing, but it took me a very long time to understand that.”

        • The Drexel Interview, 2007, Part II

          “My mother told me this story that really did start a section of [The Air We Breathe] in some way – when she used to go visit her mother [at a sanatorium], I think she was about eight then, and had a younger brother, and children weren’t allowed to visit inside the sanatoria, because it wasn’t healthy for them – so for a year, the way she saw her mother – her father would drive her to the parking lot and stand her and her brother up on the hood of the car, and her mother would come out on the porch, and they would wave at their mother on the porch.”


        “Her characters’ thirst for discovery is contagious, and every story in Archangel is suffused with the most miraculous horizon light.”

        — Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!

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        The Air We BreatheThe Air We Breathe
        “An evocative panorama of America… on the cusp of enormous change.”


        Read more »

        Servants of the MapServants of the Map

        “These stories possess a wonderful clarity and ease, the serene authority of a writer working at the very height of her powers.”

        — New York Times Book Review

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        The Voyage of the NarwhalThe Voyage of the Narwhal

        “Breathes with a contemporary urgency, an exhilarating adventure novel… A genuine page-turner that long lingers in the mind.”

        Chicago Tribune

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        Ship FeverShip Fever

        “Her work stands out for its sheer intelligence, its painstaking attempt to discern and describe the world’s configuration.”

        — New York Times

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        The Forms of WaterThe Forms of Water
        “Intelligent and elegiac… [a] winning novel.”

        The Washington Post

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        The Middle KingdomThe Middle Kingdom

        “An exhilarating book… wonderful insights…. Ms. Barrett has captured a truly authentic Beijing.”

        — Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club

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        Secret HarmoniesSecret Harmonies

        “Andrea Barrett’s characters are set out with meticulous care… Remarkably touching.”

        — The Los Angeles Times

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        Lucid StarsLucid Stars

        “A quietly charming, seductive first novel… The dynamics of the modern broken… are limned here with rare sensitivity and insight.”

        Publishers Weekly

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        About the Author

        Andrea Barrett

        Andrea Barrett

        Author photos © Barry Goldstein

        Andrea Barrett was born in Boston in 1954, grew up on Cape Cod, and later attended Union College, where she graduated with a degree in biology. She began writing fiction seriously in her thirties and published her first novel, Lucid Stars, in 1988. In 1996, she received the National Book Award for her fifth book, Ship Fever, a collection of stories.Barrett is particularly well known as a writer of historical fiction. Her work reflects her lifelong interest in science, and women in science. Many of her characters are scientists, often 19th-century biologists.

        Barrett received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2001. Her short story collection Servants of the Map was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

        As in the work of William Faulkner, some of Barrett’s characters have appeared in more than one story or novel. In an appendix to her recent novel, The Air We Breathe (2007), Barrett supplied a family tree, making clear the characters’ relationships that began in Ship Fever. Although each novel and story is self-contained, the reader comprehends an added dimension when familiar with the characters’ previous histories.

        Barrett teaches writing at Williams College and lives in North Adams, Massachusetts, with her husband, photographer Barry Goldstein.

        The Believer, June 2009

        Any kind of serious work is full of drama and passion, yearning and disappointment, complicated choices, sacrifices, moments of bliss—and science is serious, wonderful work.”