Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Winter Station

Title:  The Winter Station
Author:  Jody Shields
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0316385344 / 978-0316385343

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When Andreev said two bodies had been discovered outside the Kharbin train station, the Baron had an image of the dead men sprawled against snow, frozen in positions their bodies couldn't hold in life."

Favorite Quote:  "People can be reassured by a tone of voice. By a touch. A gesture. Even if the voice and gestures are false, the innocent person meets the liar halfway to complete the lie. It's a partnership."

The setting and the unusual-for-me theme are my reasons for reading this book. The setting is a Russian-ruled city of Kharbin, a major railway outpost in Northern China. The theme is an outbreak of the plague!

Researching the city, I learn that this story has an actual historical basis. The city of Harbin in the Heilongiang province was founded in the 1800s with the coming of the railways. It played a key role in the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900s. Following the war, the city drew a diverse international population as a gateway into northeastern China. In 1910, the railway brought an outbreak of the pneumonic plague to the city. In a period of under a year, over 1,500 city residents - about five percent of the city population - died as a result. Ultimately, the plague claimed over 60,000 victims though Manchuria and Mongolia!

This story takes place in the fall of 1910 as the first victims are discovered. A lot of factors come into play as to what happens next. This region experiences bitterly cold winters; the cold and dark winter add an additional somber note to an already dark story. The city is depicted as a Russian-controlled, Chinese city. Cultural overlaps and differences add both additional complexities and conflicts as not everyone is respectful of the knowledge each culture has to lend to a solution. Different medical practises suggest different possibilities. Some are open to that; some are not. "We need all types of knowledge. Why not expand our circle of information?"

The history is fascinating. This book once again reaffirms the role historical fiction plays in introducing me to history I don't know. I find myself reading about the city and about the outbreak of the plague and about cultural interactions in the region. I end up spending more time with the history than the story itself.

The story as told in the book is less interesting - compelling in the intensity of the situation but less interesting to read. The narrator is the Baron, a Russian aristocrat and Medical Commissioner in the City. Through his eyes, the situation unfolds. Through his eyes, the reader also gets a glimpse of the culture and his respect for all the traditions he encounters. I love that respect.

That descriptive note though becomes the heart of the book. Nothing much happens in the plot itself. The book is slow-paced and sometimes seemingly repetitive. The plot essentially is the fear of contracting the plague and the desire to work to bring dignity to those who do suffer and to contain and stop the outbreak. This seems to repeat in a loop with different characters and in different social settings.

That is followed by what I feel is an abrupt and unexpected ending. I find myself turning the page to see if there is more, but there is not. The book has an ending, but no conclusion which leaves me unsatisfied as a reader. History tells us there was a conclusion; the book does not quite get there.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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