Tuberculosis patients are transported to an Adirondack sanatorium for their rest-cure in the days just before World War I, and in Andrea Barrett’s excellent The Air We Breathe provide a microcosm for the world on the eve of losing its innocence in the “War to End All Wars.” There are many novels which show an author’s deep understanding of human nature, and The Air We Breathe belongs in the ranks of the very finest.
Leo Marburg, a young Russian immigrant without family or cultural ties, contracts the dread consumption while living and working in Brooklyn in the spring of 1917. His arrival at Tamarack State, the institution for tuberculosis patients, precipitates at length a series of misunderstandings, and attracts the suspicion of the self-appointed authorities. His fellow inmates also succumb to unfounded suspicion, and turn on him. At novel’s end, they realize how unfair they were to their former friend, and how unjust.
Ms. Barrett does a marvelous job of bringing in the remarkable historical events at that epochal moment. The inmates, suffering from boredom and a sense of abandonment, begin, grudgingly at first, to gather once a week to hear a talk by one of their own. Late in the book, after all the reproach and recrimination have played their havoc on the principals, particularly Leo, the group reflects on a time of lost innocence (a grand job of the author to catch the tenor and momentousness of the time):
How innocent we seem to ourselves, now, when we look back at our first Wednesday afternoons! Gathering to learn about fossils, poison gas, the communal settlement at Ovid, about Stravinsky and Chekhov, trade unions and moving pictures and the relative nature of time, when we could have learned what we needed about the world and war simply by observing our own actions and desires. We lived as if nothing was important.
In awe of events swirling beyond their walls, the inmates make the mistake of missing the feelings and personal strife right within their midst. They have witnessed thwarted love, betrayal, xenophobia, wartime jingoism, and the disillusionment of talented immigrants. The clever author accomplishes two tricks at once here: she uses the folly and selfishness of the patients to illuminate the faults of the outside world (there is a fire that generates poison gas and fatally injures three), and also shows in stark relief the truth that the less we care for our fellow beings, the less we are worth. She offers here a lesson for the world at large, and also for much smaller communities. This is superbly thought-provoking, plainly told, and deceptively straightforward. Find the depth through the archetypes. Recommended, big-time.