February 19, 2013

Musical hope in the face of illness

By James Markert
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Whenever the “white wind” blew down the mountain toward Louisville, the city hunched away. People felt it was a miasma aimed at them from the Waverly Hills Tuberculosis Sanitorium near the hilltop. Built at the peak of the TB plague in the early 1900s, this was the showpiece of a complex of buildings, which included a shabby structure segregated for blacks, and numerous other houses on the mountainside for doctors and other help. At this time TB was a major scourge of the nation, and the main treatment for the disease was rest and fresh air—not always successful. People were said to have died there at the rate of one a day. The bodies were sent down a chute to a pickup place, so that patients didn't have to see death cars taking away the dead, day after day.

As a child in Louisville, James Markert was impressed early on by the huge Gothic structure on the hill. For Wolfgang Pike, the major character in his book, it gets special when Pike's beloved young wife becomes ill. As a doctor he gets personally involved in the affairs on the mountain. Also a musician, he works endlessly on a requiem for his lost love—book sections are named for musical movements—and meanwhile uses his talents to give happiness to the sick patients. Eventually discovering the musical skills of many of them, he organizes an orchestra and chorus to take their minds off their sickness. Although it's a major success, the head doctor frowns on the whole enterprise as an unacceptable interruption to the process of getting well.

Wolfgang's original goal of becoming a priest has been sidelined for awhile but eventually circles around again, complicated by new relationships and insights. The author's ability to weigh competing views against each other, and the all-too-real human complications are presented with a remarkable understanding of conflicting ideas that makes even villains human eventually. Markert fudges a little at the end—but that's ok. In fact, it's better that way. The author writes well and reads easily; you'll finish this book in a day or two and wish for a sequel.

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A White Wind Blew

A White Wind Blew

By James Markert
ISBN 9781402278372

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