20th-Century Manchuria, Long-Forgotten Plague Captivate In New Historical Novel

Download Audio
"The Winter Station," by Jody Shields. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"The Winter Station," by Jody Shields. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The year is 1910 and the setting is the Russian city of Kharbin, a frozen desolate outpost in Manchuria. An uneasy peace exists between the Chinese and Russians who live there, and then comes the plague. So begins "The Winter Station," a poignant new historical novel by author Jody Shields.

The narrative was inspired by a real-life Russian aristocrat and physician whose memoir of loss, hope and determination was lost until Shields found a single copy in Germany nearly a decade ago.

Shields joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about her new novel, the Baron she discovered and the region's troubled history.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "The Winter Station"

Interview Highlights

On discovering the real-life Baron's memoir

"Any time I can spend time in the library, it works for me, and I was at the New York Academy of Medicine Library. I just happened to be browsing through medical literature as one does, and I found a little mention of this forgotten plague in Manchuria and that a Baron, an aristocrat, had written about it, and the book had been lost. So I immediately was electrified, and I launched a search for the book, which I found in Germany, and bought, I think, probably the last copy available, and it was in German. So then a process of finding many translators to help me began."

On the historical context

"Manchuria was an area of China that actually was unexplored for centuries, and the Chinese wanted it, the Russians wanted it and the Japanese wanted it. So, they were all hoping, by virtue of the plague wiping out each other's armies, that they would be able to invade and conquer. So there was a lot riding on who was going to survive."

On the protagonist Baron

"He is a fascinating person and remains an enigma even though I spent five years trying to decipher his motives. He wasn't really for either side. He was for helping people who had no other voice basically, and he actually was quite a rebel. He married his Chinese wife against the Czar's wishes."

"I don't know how people coped frankly. I would imagine after a while you stop seeing what you saw, if you know what I mean."

Jody Shields, on the plague in Manchuria

On describing and portraying the plague in the novel

"This was the hard part of writing the book, although there were many difficulties. Once one person dies, you don't need to keep going. So I structured it like a murder mystery. People are dying, you don't know why. He has to follow the trail. Once they figure it out, there wasn't much they could do for anyone. So he became a witness as a doctor, and his release was with the tea ceremony and learning calligraphy as a form of discipline and distraction, of course.

"All the scenes of the city that I read about from various witnesses were almost surreal, because it was so extraordinary. You would go out in the street and there would be a body there, and then more bodies, and then more bodies. I don't know how people coped frankly. I would imagine after a while you stop seeing what you saw, if you know what I mean."

On survival methods

"The quarantine was quite brutal. It was a smallish town, and there were so many people who were ill that they finally put them into railroad cars, and if they survived in a railroad car, they would release them. And it was sort of horror piled upon horror. If you survived one way, you might reach your end in another way.

On how the real-life Baron recounts it in his memoir

"It was extraordinary. He realized that no one could be saved, and so he took it as his mission to record all the names of the people that he encountered because there was no other way they would be remembered. Everyone was so overwhelmed, and of course he was one of the few people who actually spoke Chinese. So he would ask them their name and he would write it down, and in the book which he published several years later, there's actually page after page after page of Chinese names, and you see whole families had been wiped out.

"Trying to figure out his character, there was one sentence that I read about him that really stuck in my mind. And he wrote, 'I realized that when I talk to these patients, this was the last conversation they would have on Earth.' And that propelled me through the book."

On why we don't know more about this plague

"All the governments — the Japanese, the Chinese and the Russian — they all, of course, tried to hide the fact that this was happening. Because otherwise the train would shut down, and, again, it was a problem with the armies invading. But they were afraid of losing power to each other, and also, if they shut the train down, it was the lifeblood of the city, so there would be no food and riots for the few people that are left. Actually, many nations — France, the United States — they all sent medical teams to help, but, again, no one could really stop it."

On what to make of the real-life Baron

"He's so remarkable. The parts of his books that I had translated, he's very torn between wanting to help the people or bear witness to their suffering, and protect his own family and his own life. And how a person decides to stay and try to help is truly remarkable. It really is an enigmatic thing. And the strangeness of finding his book that had been lost for so long, really, seemed to be kind of a message in a bottle. He wrote the book. He was bearing witness to the people who passed away. He was also a whistleblower pointing his finger at the way the governments handled this so poorly. And I hope that I brought him out in a way that he would approve because obviously he hoped his book would have some impact."

Book Excerpt: 'The Winter Station'

by Jody Shields

When Andreev said two bodies had been discovered outside the Kharbin train station, the Baron had an image of the dead men sprawled against snow, frozen in positions their bodies couldn’t hold in life. His focus sharpened on Andreev’s face, faintly pink, only the triangle of his eyes, nose, and lips visible surrounded by the rough hood of his sheepskin coat. It was noon and the sun already cast the faint blue haze of twilight that was particular to this place in September. The sun would set in less than three hours and the temperature would hover near zero.

The Baron’s breath exploded into a cloud in the freezing air. “Exactly where were the bodies found?”

“Alongside the train tracks.” Andreev’s arm waved in the direction of Central Station just behind them. “Somewhere between the tracks and the train station.”

“Who told you?”

“A contact who works for the railroad. He traveled here on the last train from Mukden to Kharbin.”

Mukden was two hundred verst away, a walled city, once the ancient imperial capital of Manchuria, since eclipsed. “Is your contact reliable?”

“As death.”

“When did he see the bodies?” “A day ago.”

Frozen solid and covered with snow, the bodies could have remained undetected for weeks. Or until May, when the snow melted. Or until discovered by wild dogs or wolves.

“He watched soldiers put the bodies on a cart at night. Their lanterns were covered. No witnesses but my Mukden informer.”

“Strange.” If Andreev’s report was true, some official had given orders to the lowest-level police about the bodies. He built the scene in his imagination to block the dark chink of evidence that the investigation had happened in secret. Why hadn’t he been notified? He was the city’s chief medical examiner and a doctor at the Russian hospital, only two streets away from where the bodies had been found. He should have been consulted or signed a death certificate. He was self-conscious about his lack of information as Andreev watched him, measuring his response. It was necessary to keep up a façade in front of Andreev, to maintain the tinsel appearance of a link to powerful General Dmitry Khorvat, the czar’s administrator. The general ran the city like a private business, with absolute authority over all Russian military and civil matters in Kharbin. The Baron owed his appointment to Khorvat and kept it only at his pleasure.

In medical school on the Universitetskaya Embankment in St. Petersburg, the Baron had learned a methodology for diagnosis: the dissector must learn to discern order. First, establish the facts of how the Russians had managed the deaths. “No bodies were brought to the hospital. Nothing reported in the newspapers Molva or Russkoe Solve.” He made a dismissive gesture. “So I assume the dead were Chinese?”

“Yes.” The hood of Andreev’s jacket jerked up and down in confirmation.

“That explains the lack of official interest.” A dead Russian would have left an investigation, a vigil, memorial candles at St. Nikolas Cathedral. Unidentified Chinese were ignored in death. Kharbin was a divided city, laid out like a game board between the Chinese and the Russians. Perhaps the Chinese authorities had retrieved the bodies? Perhaps the dead were prominent Chinese, assassinated for a political motive? “Tell me, had clothing been stripped from the bodies?”

“Were they stripped? No. He didn’t say the bodies were naked.” Andreev’s voice revealed that he was puzzled by the question, but his answer was quick, information traded for a grain of praise from the older man, an aristocrat and son of a diplomat in the czar’s service.

Why two dead men near a crowded train station? A bold gamble. A risk of witnesses. There were easier places to leave bodies, as Kharbin was surrounded by the wilderness of the Manchurian plains. “The murderers must have a good alibi.” The Baron shifted his weight to keep his feet from becoming numb on the snow-covered ground.

“Or an alibi from soldiers who took the bodies.” “What’s your picture of the crime, Andreev?”

“The men were tricked or forced onto the tracks. They fought the robbers who assaulted them. Later, their bodies were removed so as not to alarm other travelers and the Chinese authorities.”

You would choose an answer that was crooked, the Baron thought. There was no point in a search, as the exact location of the bodies was uncertain. The corpse movers would have churned the snow, added their own tracks, obliterated evidence. Two deaths marked only with words. He felt an obligation to continue the questioning.

No one else would bother. There were no trained police or investigators in Kharbin, only soldiers and veterans who stayed after the war with Japan and were drafted into the Zamurskii District Special Border Guard Corps. They served Russia, the occupying power in Manchuria. The Russian soldiers coexisted with the Chinese and Japanese military, all waiting for an incident that would allow them to expand their presence in Kharbin. Perhaps the dead Chinese men would be that incident. “How close was your witness to the bodies?”

“He watched from the train window.”

“Did he notice blood by the bodies?” The Baron’s voice was neutral, but he began to wonder if Andreev himself had actually witnessed the discovery of the two corpses.

“Blood? No, it would have been too dark for him to see blood on snow. It was after three o’clock.” He exhaled.

Andreev’s breath wreathed around his head, and the Baron silently noted this indication of tension. In Manchuria’s harsh, cold climate, the breath was a visible sign that betrayed emotion more immediately than words. “True. We lose the light early these days.” He scrutinized the other man’s face for a moment too long and Andreev looked away, breaking eye contact.

The Baron would never have associated with Andreev in St. Petersburg, as he was lower class, a worker. It was unlikely they would ever have met. But in Kharbin, Andreev was a fellow Russian and necessary as a servant. He located anything for a fee. The man was flexible as curved script, with barbs that extended across the city, from the furriers on Kitayskaya Street to black marketeers, suppliers for potatoes, kerosene, Krupp pistols, silk for dresses, lanolin, French wine, writing paper. Andreev bartered, bought, and occasionally stole goods. There were always shortages, as everything was imported from Moscow, St. Petersburg, south from Beijing, Shanghai, west from Vladivostok and Port Arthur on the Pacific coast.

It was rumored that Andreev was a government informer, one of the numerous double and triple agents who served Russia in Manchuria, likely paid twice over for the same information about scandal and crime.

Self-possessed, Andreev had the guarded single-mindedness of a missionary or someone who had witnessed great cruelty. He divined the compass that others used. “The desire for possessions, for ownership, is the glue holding us together here in Kharbin. Not courage or love of the family or the czar or freedom,” Andreev had once explained. “Even the missionaries count the Chinese in church. The number of souls saved.” His voice had been scornful. Yet he had located frankincense for St. Nikolas Cathedral to replace a lost shipment and was deeply moved when the archimandrite blessed him for his work.

The Baron patiently returned to his questioning. “And your Mukden contact. Does he have a name? Or is his identification also an impossibility?”

Andreev shook his head. “He’s safely returned to Mukden.” He looked over his shoulder nervously, although they were alone, bracketed by ridges of empty train tracks.

“Your mysterious contact had no other information?”

“I told you that there wasn’t enough light for him to see.”

“But he recognized the soldiers.”

Andreev laughed. He appreciated the joke, as Russian soldiers in their huge fur hats and stiff-skirted coats were unmistakable.

His feet were numb on the uneven ground. It was useless to try to provoke Andreev into revealing more information. It was too cold. It had been a mistake to interview him outside.

“You claim there are two bodies that cannot be located or identified. And your source of information about the bodies is absent and anonymous. If you were younger, if you were a child, I would dismiss you without kindness for wasting my time.”

“That’s all the information I have for you, Baron.” Nothing fazed Andreev. The conversation had been concluded.

“Can I offer you something in exchange for your generous information? A token of appreciation?”

“You owe me nothing, sir.” Andreev grinned. “Situations change. Someday I may need a favor from you.”

This question and answer of Andreev’s pretended graciousness was a ritual between them. The Baron’s sheepskin mittens were thick as a towel and he fumbled, pressing several rubles into the other man’s outstretched hand.
He watched Andreev’s bulky silhouette vanish into the blue shadow of Central Station. Although shivering with cold, he was unwilling to walk into the building, as the heat would dissolve his clarity of thought. He needed time to collect himself.

Excerpted from THE WINTER STATION Copyright © 2018 by Jody Shields. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

This segment aired on February 27, 2018.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live