Thursday, February 6, 2014

Music to Soothe the TB Chest

A White Wind Blew by James Markert


Wolfgang Pike is a driven man. From a young age, his father trained him in many musical instruments, hoping he would become a musician and composer. As Wolfgang grew, he dreamt of writing a symphony, but then he fell in love with the Catholic Church and felt his calling was to become a priest. That was until he met Rose, whose generous heart brought him to volunteer with WW1 soldiers that had fallen victim to the Spanish Flu. So he put aside his seminary studies, married her and became a doctor. The TB epidemic brought him to Waverly sanitarium, and Rose's death, turned his unfinished symphony into a Requiem. In the novel "A White Wind Blew" James Markert brings all of Wolfgang's callings together in an intricate dance, on the discordant stage of late 1920s Louisville, Kentucky.

From this plot summary, one can easily see just how sweeping this novel is - not just in terms of the protagonist, but also in terms of the tumultuous setting. Aside from the disease that raged, this was also a time of upheaval and change. In this post-Great War era, prohibition had been put in place and with it, came the bootleggers and criminals. This was also the time of racial hatred and segregation, when the KKK was running rampant. Their hatred for Catholics and alcohol was second only to their abhorrence for anyone who wasn't a white protestant.

Into this mix, Markert gives Wolfgang a lame leg from having contracted Polio as a child, a boss who eschews his attempts to bring music to his patients, nurses and orderlies of every shape and kind, and a huge cast of TB ridden and mentally ill inmates. With all this, and Wolfgang's past, it is a surprise that readers can keep them all straight. To Markert's credit, this is never a problem, and throughout this novel we know precisely who is who and when the action is taking place - be it in the midst of the present action, or a flashback. Markert does all this with a controlled style of writing that is just descriptive enough to add to the atmosphere of the era and setting, but never overpowering. In this way the reader can easily concentrate on the story and his characters, which is truly needed because of the complexity of the former and number of the latter.

All of this adds up to one epic story, a la "Gone with the Wind". In fact, this story just begs to be filmed. So it was no surprise to me that Markert also has a screenwriting credit on his biography. However, much like that famous novel, sometimes an epic story is better when it's filmed than on the printed page. And although this is far shorter than that 1,000+ page tome, it still feels like there is far too much going on here, and seems weighted down with what could be unnecessary details and back stories. I can totally understand why he kept all these characters in, and again - to his credit - he is a master at molding them into three dimensional personalities. However, despite almost every character having an important part to play in the climax, I wonder if it wouldn't have been more effective if we had been able to concentrate on just a few less people and their stories. What I was hoping for was more focus on Wolfgang's "medicinal music" and the Requiem, which was what attracted me to this story in the first place. I'm afraid that this expectation made me frustrated when the story veered off into other goings-on.

Another thing that I found didn't sit right with me were a few places that seemed inconsistent with the era. For instance, when a man has no electricity in his home, but his roses continue to bloom throughout the winter because of electric lamps that keep them warm outside, you have to wonder how that works. Also, I'm pretty sure that headphones for radios weren't all that available in the 1920s, especially for a hospital that probably had less than optimal funding. Of course, I have to keep in mind that I only received a pre-publication review copy, and I sincerely hope these inaccuracies will be edited out before the final publication.

Overall, Markert really has a marvelous story to tell us, which happens to be based on a real building, that actually was used as a TB sanitarium during this era. There is no mistaking that Markert took full advantage of the many urban legends and ghost stories surrounding Waverly as a major inspiration for this tale. His excellent ability to develop interesting and sympathetic characters, and weave a fascinating plot around them, should have made this story into a modern day classic. Unfortunately, his motivation carried him just a bit too far afield in some places. Even so, this is actually a good read that is far faster-paced than I may have suggested. I'll still cautiously recommend it, since I'm sure there are readers out there who might easily ignore what disturbed me here. However, in all fairness, I cannot give James Markert's novel "A White Wind Blew" more than three out of five stars. 


"A White Wind Blew" by James Markert was released on February 4, 2014 by SOURCEBOOKS Landmark, and is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. My thanks to the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley. 

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