Set in 1916 as U.S. participation in World War I looked more and more probable, The Air We Breathe offers a glimpse into that world from the unique perspective of the tuberculosis patients who were being treated at Tamarack State, a public hospital located in a small New York town that was well known for the number of private cure cottages also located there. The hospital became home to dozens of indigent immigrants from around the world who had to agree to strict rules regarding their behavior and treatment regimen if they wanted to remain under public care.
New arrivals were instructed to lie quietly in their beds and to move only when told to do so. No talking, laughing, smoking, singing, reading or writing was allowed. They were simply to remain as quiet as possible so that their bodies could focus on ridding them of the disease that brought them to Tamarack State. The patients, many of them from Russia, Germany, and various Eastern European countries were often destitute because they were not allowed to use the skills or educations acquired before their arrival in America. Long-term patients, those whose health improved enough for them to move out of the clinic and into semi-private rooms, soon became bored with the routine and the tiny library available to them. They filled their days with gossip about patients and hospital staff alike, and craved news of the outside world.
Miles Fairchild, a wealthy patient in one of the town’s expensive cure cottages, stepped into this closed community one day with good intentions. He proposed a series of weekly lectures that would allow him and other patients to share their particular areas of expertise with anyone who wanted to attend. Fairchild was gratified by the way his idea caught on but he soon came to resent the fact that he was pushed aside by the group almost as soon as his initial lectures were done. He continued coming to the Wednesday afternoon sessions only because it allowed him some private time with the young woman who drove him to and from the hospital.
As certainty of war approached, xenophobia and an almost paranoid concern about immigrants from countries soon to be at war with the U.S. became the norm even in small town America. When Miles Fairchild, already jealous of the attention his young driver is paying to Leo Marburg, a young Russian patient, decides to use his wealth and influence to question the national loyalties of patients and staff, the social order of Tamarack State begins to break down.
Andrea Barrett, who tells her story through the voices and observations of several anonymous patients, uses Tamarack State as a stand-in for what was going on in the country as a whole on the eve of World War I. The Air We Breathe is filled with sympathetic characters who too often take the easy way out when faced with difficult choices, especially when the inevitable head-to-head clash between Leo and Miles reaches its climax. But these characters fit perfectly into the largely forgotten world of public tuberculosis sanatoriums that Barrett has so remarkably recreated. Theirs is not necessarily a story I was sorry to see end, but their world is definitely one I am happy to have visited.
Rated at: 3.5