Set in the Adirondack Mountains in the 1920s, Mountain Shadows is about tuberculosis, Prohibition, frigid weather and enduring love. Written by Patricia Reiss Brooks, this novel is captivating if uneven in its quality.
Brooks grew up in the Adirondacks. Her father suffered from tuberculosis (he recovered). For her research, she relied on local history and particularly on the 1918 diary of Evelyn Bellack, a sixteen-year-old who went to Ray Brook, New York, “to take the cure.”
The story is a good one. A young woman, Alice Devlin, newly wed, comes down with tuberculosis and travels to Saranac Lake to take the recommended cure. Alice’s husband, Joe, makes an adventurous snowshoe journey north from their home in New York City to reach her side, finds a job near her cure cottage and endeavors to pay for her healthcare and visit her when permitted.
The cure for T.B. at that time involved doing almost nothing for a long, long time, and sleeping outside, even in winter months, on the cure cottages’ porches (Saranac Lake is one of the coldest spots in the country). It also involved the patient remaining cheerful and optimistic, sometimes for years, despite little change in condition. No drugs were available for this disease at that time.
In upper New York state, one of two or three geographic areas most famous for their T.B.treatments, patients in the small cottages were taken much better care of than those who were treated in hospital wards. But the care was not inexpensive, and the disease often dragged on for months or years. In this novel, as Joe is an automobile mechanic, his wages are not high. Because Alice’s stay becomes longer than expected, Joe decides to take on some additional, risky business -- fixing cars of men involved in bootlegging. In his devout heart, he does not like doing this illegal work. However, it pays substantially better than his regular job, and he feels he has few choices.
Throughout the long months of her treatment, Joe and Alice’s unwavering love is impressive. They are seldom able to be together; they cannot even kiss. Joe is tempted by another woman, but remains strong. However, for this reader, there are a few major problems with the novel. The most gripping and inspirational parts of the book are the history and treatment of the T.B. patients and the lengths to which their families went to try to cure them. What are far less interesting, at least to this reader, are all the minutiae of the rum-running expeditions and the snow-rolling equipment.
The other drawback to this novel is that its tone and style read more like a young adult novel might. The characters, while they seem true to the times, are somewhat flat, more like composites than recognizable individuals. The language is not terribly sophisticated (for example, “The woman hung her pigeon-like bosom out the window.”), Joe and his colleagues often speak in repetitive clichés. Additional editing would have been most useful.
Overall, this novel should most appeal to history buffs, those especially interested in the tuberculosis treatments of the ‘20s and ‘30s or those interested in early life in one of the country’s most rural and chilly spots. Mountain Shadows is a fairly fast read and an informative book, its ending is realistic, but this is not a literary masterpiece.