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The Winter Station


The Winter Station

THE WINTER STATION is set in Manchuria in Northern China in 1910. Author Jody Shields describes the frigid landscape of the railroad center, Kharbin, in vivid detail. At the time, the region is under military control of the Russians, with a shaky truce between them and its Chinese residents. General Dmitry Khorvat has been appointed by the czar to maintain Russian control over all matters both civil and military. He has named Dr. Baron von Budberg, son of a Russian aristocrat, as the town’s chief medical administrator working in the Russian hospital. The doctor is referred to as the Baron throughout the story.

During the time he has resided in Kharbin, the Baron has become acquainted with a Russian commoner, Andreev. Although Andreev is beneath the Baron in station, the two have developed a symbiotic relationship. They both rely on the other for information and enjoy an odd friendship. We first meet them when Andreev reports that two dead bodies have been seen outside the railroad tracks. His informer tells him that soldiers put the bodies into a cart that night with covered lanterns. There were no other witnesses.

The Baron is puzzled that no bodies were brought to the hospital. As administrator, he should have signed the death certificates. Shrugging his shoulders, he muses that “I assume the dead were Chinese.”

“Yes,” replies Andreev.

Shields writes, “Two deaths marked only with words.”

"Shields presents her novel with the detail and fluidity of the early Russian novelists.... THE WINTER STATION offers much for readers of historical fiction."

The Baron returns home to his young Chinese wife, Li Ju. He is accorded the respect that his noble upbringing demands, but his colleagues speak behind his back about his fixation for the mores of the Chinese people, their language and customs. Russians deem the Oriental residents as little more than slave labor, with practically no personal contact. Beijing runs the civil affairs of its Chinese citizens as totally separate from the Russian command. The two cultures exist together without compatibility.

The Baron refuses to let the mysterious deaths remain unaddressed. He questions Russian soldiers who may have seen others cart off the dead Chinese. Perhaps they were robbed, killed and left for dead. His curious nature will not let the matter rest. He takes what little information he can secure to General Khorvat, who listens but sees no rush to account for the dead. He tells the Baron, “I don’t value you as a cataloger of the dead.”

However, the Baron cannot stop thinking about those deaths and confides in Andreev about his misgivings. Together, they go to a tavern and imbibe, meeting with a congenial dwarf who welcomes wealthy customers as the doorman for the Russian clothing store. The Baron discovers that Chang Huai is an endless source of information about the city, its people and history. However, his loyalty is to the Russians who pay him well.

In short order, additional bodies turn up in snow banks. Symptoms of coughing, bloody sputum, raspy throats, limited breathing and sickness have invaded the city. Beijing sends a young physician who exhibits more arrogance than intelligence to minister to the Chinese people afflicted with the mysterious disease that has no cure. He sets up a Chinese hospital, using the facility for autopsies of the dead, a forbidden practice in Buddhist culture. Once the disease is identified as the Plague, all doctors in Kharbin work around the clock to protect the living from contamination. Little is known about its treatment. The Baron is deeply concerned about the “how and when” of its initial transmission. Working with Chang, Andreev and his Russian medical companions, he strives to end the scourge.

Shields presents her novel with the detail and fluidity of the early Russian novelists. Manchuria’s history is splattered with those who came to conquer but find that they can only administrate, not assimilate. The Baron is remarkable in his ability to fight a dreaded plague, steadfast loyalty to his profession, unceasing curiosity about his adopted home’s language and people, and enduring love for Li Ju. He is also admirable, elegant and doggedly human. THE WINTER STATION offers much for readers of historical fiction.

Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on February 16, 2018

The Winter Station
by Jody Shields

  • Publication Date: December 4, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316385336
  • ISBN-13: 9780316385336