The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason
Daniel Mason is a Psychiatrist in the United States, “his research and teaching interests include the subjective experience of mental illness and the influence of literature, history, and culture on the practice of medicine”. He is also an author, known for his earlier best-selling novels The Piano Tuner and A Far Country. This past week I read his most recent book The Winter Soldier, and it is truly a great novel.
The Winter Soldier takes place during, and just after, the First World War. The story begins in Vienna where we meet a young medical student, Lucius Krzelewski. Lucius is of Polish extraction, the privileged only child of an affluent couple who found business opportunity in Austria.
When war comes, in desperate need of doctors, the army allows medical students who are close to graduation to become military doctors, and Lucius is off to war – to a field hospital in the Carpathian Mountains. He is welcomed by a nurse, a nun, Sister Margarete. Pan Doctor Lieutenant is quickly taught his trade by this nurse, who has overseen the field hospital in the absence of a doctor for some time. She has managed, as best she can, to control the spread of disease, and infestations of lice, and she has been amputating limbs – many, many limbs. Soldiers have arrive with injury from battle, and with frostbite. The only hope to save a life is to amputate and stop the spread of infection. For Lucius this is all so far removed from his studies in Vienna he can only follow her lead, identifying patients by name, battalion, and injury or diagnosis. It is only later that Lucius makes the transition from student doctor, with text book training, to a doctor who sees the complications of the patient, and the impact of disease on both the patient and their family, particularly after the war when families are reunited.
The challenges that faced Lucius during the war were many, and he is left haunted by his fears, and guilt. He also found a brief, precious and unexpected, love that was quickly lost. After the Armistice, Lucius returned to Vienna where he worked in a hospital treating returning soldiers who are suffering from the psychiatric toll of war. During this time Europe is in a state of great unrest, with borders shifted, and so many people displaced. There are prisoners of war returning and masses of people attempting to find loved ones lost to them in the upheaval of war. Lucius, too, is looking for the woman he loved so briefly. He travels, again, to the remote valley where he worked during the war, on a quest that will bring him the opportunity to come to terms with what he experienced, to reclaim who he was during that time, and free him of his burden of guilt.
One of the things I found most absorbing about this book, apart from the story of the individual characters, was the fact that it takes place on the Eastern Front. There are many books about the First World War that take place on the Western Front, about the Canadian, American or British war experience, but the Eastern Front was an entirely different battleground. Here battles were fought by Cossacks and Hussars in a massive territory of plains and mountains, a place and history vividly portrayed in The Winter Soldier.