The Winter Station, by Jody Shields

35099023As it is portrayed in Jody Shields’ The Winter Station, Harbin, Manchuria is the ends of the earth. It is a frozen outpost in winter and the Chinese Eastern Railway is its lifeline to the rest of the world. In the winter of 1910-1911, the city was maintaining a rough balance between the Russians who brought the railroad and money into the city and the Chinese who provided all the hard labor. That balance is severely tested when pneumonic plague breaks out and causes one of the deadliest ever epidemics in recorded history.

Our guide to the plague-ridden city is the Baron, a Russian noble with a sinecure (he is unofficially exiled from Russia because he married a Chinese woman without the tsar’s permission). The Baron is an outsider to both the Russian and Chinese populations of Harbin. The Chinese don’t like him because is Russian. The Russians don’t like him because the Baron is doing his best to assimilate with the Chinese. We follow the Baron through the worsening outbreak and the panicked efforts of the city’s doctors in their futile attempts to treat patients, with frequent interludes in which our narrator foreigner-splains Chinese tea customs and calligraphy.

Wu_Lien-teh_-_c._1910–1915

Dr. Wu Lien-teh, who appears as a character in this novel, was a critical member of the medical team during the 1910-1911 Harbin outbreak.

Over the course of The Winter Station, the Baron attempts to figure out how the plague came to the city and keep his family safe. Meanwhile, he is also our fly-on-the-wall during meetings with the medical team as they try to figure out how to treat a disease that was, until the development of antibiotics, nearly 100% fatal. It must have been terrifying for the actual medical team at the time. The only thing they could do was disinfect everything in sight, wear masks when working with patients, and inject patients with morphine to try and control their pain and coughing. Their already impossible task was made even more difficult by their inability to cut off travel into and out of the city.

There are other, better books that explore life in a city where people are dropping dead from a poorly understood disease. As I read The Winter Station and, I’ll admit, skimmed over the textbook-y sections about Chinese culture, I thought of Albert Camus’ The PlagueThe Winter Station appears to be trying to capture The Plague’s atmosphere of hopelessness and paranoia. Unfortunately, it fails because it tries to do too many things at once: medical thriller à la The Hot Zone, guide to Chinese culture, and story of a man caught between cultures.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 30 January 2018.

One thought on “The Winter Station, by Jody Shields

  1. I’m intrigued! I have been to Harbin, I have researched the place for a Nanowrimo project (left unfinished, sigh). This book definitely seems right up my alley. I’m going to try my luck at Netgalley (might be too late) or keep it in my radar.

    Liked by 1 person

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