Monday 27 May 2024

The Winter Station

Finished January 23
The Winter Station by Jody Shields

This historical novel is set in 1910 in the city of Kharbin. Kharbin was a major railway outpost in northern China that was under Russian-rule at the time. The main character in this novel is Baron von Budberg, a man who grew up in St. Petersburg and was educated as a doctor. He traveled to Manchuria in 1904 to serve as a medic in the imperial army, and then found himself in the new city of Kharbin. Kharbin was established in Manchuria in 1898 by order of the Russian czar. The Baron was appointed medical commissioner for the city by the general in charge, General Khorvat. 
As the book opens, the Baron is investigating a report of bodies discovered outside the train station. The man saw the bodies taken away in a cart, but the bodies weren't taken to the nearby hospital, nor reported to him by the men who took them. This begins the story of a plague coming to the city that winter. The Baron learns that the bodies were of Chinese men, which raises other questions, like whether the Chinese authorities had ordered the removal of the bodies and what rank the men were. 
The man who informed the Baron of the incident is Andreev, a man known as a government informer, who also traded on the black market. 
The Baron is also a man who exists between the two worlds of Russian and Chinese people. He is married to a much younger Chinese woman, Li Ju, who had been a servant before they formed a relationship. He has made the effort to learn Chinese, and can understand enough to translate. He is also taking calligraphy classes from a master in the art. 
As the existence of a transmissible disease that is almost always fatal become more and more evident, the community, and the Baron himself, find themselves torn between sides in many arenas. There is traditional Chinese medicine versus Western medical science, distrust between the two communities, and the widespread hiding of bodies to avoid being ostracized which hinders the ability to fully understand the spread. The Baron sometimes finds himself at odds with others in his profession, in particular a newly arrived Western-educated Dr. Wu Lien-teh, who is put in charge by the Chinese, but who speaks neither Mandarin nor Russian, and who conducts the hospital meetings in English, the language that he speaks and that most of the other doctors understand. 
He finds one ally among his peers, a French doctor names Messonier, with whom he has a regular meeting centered around a shared love and interest in tea. 
We see the doctors arguing about the disease, what it is, and how to treat and protect others from it. The Baron is an advocate for masks and disinfectant, practices which after some discussion get adopted. 
The Baron has great depth of character here, we see his compassion, and his observation skills. We also see how his ties to the community from different contacts, from Andreev, to a Chinese dwarf, give him additional information on the situation. We also see how the competitive nature of some doctors keep them from working well as a whole. 
This novel is a slow-moving one, similar to the two Chinese practices that the Baron has taken on, calligraphy, and tea. As we see both his work life and his personal life, we get drawn into the story ourselves.  

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