The time is 1910. The place is the small Russian settlement of Kharbin located in Manchuria which is still governed by the Chinese. There is a very unstable truce between the Chinese, the Russians and the Japanese. In this small and nearly forgotten city, Jody Shields weaves a story that was inspired by the actual incidents of the times. People are dying from an unknown cause and before the Baron, a Russian aristocrat and also the town's medical commissioner, can examine any bodies, they have mysteriously disappeared. He also finds it troublesome that he has not been notified of the deaths. When the casualties keep mounting, the Baron realizes the town is suffering from an invisible enemy – the plague. Although he is determined to eradicate the sickness, he encounters hostilities from other doctors and government bureaucrats, including his own, to share information with each other.
The Baron does have a few allies who try to help him. A French doctor named Messonier, a smuggler and black market dealer named Andreev, and a Chinese dwarf named Chang. As the invisible death continues to take lives, the Chinese who at first wouldn't accept help from the Russians are forced to do so. The Russians blame the Chinese for the plague claiming they are dirty and uncivilized while the Japanese stick to their section of the city, isolating themselves from the others. But as each government official can no longer hide the fact that there is a serious health problem, only then do the doctors unite to come up with a strategy on how to fight the disease.
Some of the Baron's colleagues want to autopsy the Chinese bodies. This leads to more strenuous relations between the parties involved as Chinese custom forbids the desecration of the deceased. Adding to the dilemma is the cold winter which forces many people to gather in small spaces huddled together. If only one person is affected, the others would soon follow. With the epidemic in full force, the newly appointed young and arrogant Chinese doctor has received permission from authorities in Beijing to conduct autopsies on the dead. However, the local population believes the Russian are stealing the bodies and cutting up the bodies to sell the organs.
To establish some type of order and to combat the increasing death toll, the government of China with the help of Russian soldiers has ordered some extreme measures such as confining people on a train. If they show no symptoms of the disease after five days, they were free to leave. Victims and bodies of the dead are being picked up by the “plague wagons” and transported out of town where the bodies were burned. People suspected of having the disease are forced out of their homes and taken to makeshift hospitals while their homes and businesses are burned down to cleanse the area. Families fearing for their children and loved ones often hide the bodies of the dead making finding a solution even more difficult than it already was.
The deeper you get into the story, the deeper your worry gets for the Baron, his Chinese wife and his associates and friends. The Baron and other foreign doctors are working virtually without rest but the city is losing over a hundred citizens a day and their seems to be no end in sight. Will the doctors be able to find a cure? Will they be able to find the cause? Will the Baron even survive this epidemic? What will happen to the city?
Curiosity got the best of me and I had to research what really happened in Manchuria in 1910. As Shield's narrative states, there was an outbreak of plague. However, it wasn't bubonic. It was a pneumatic plague. People in the medical profession believe the plague was spread by disease-carrying marmots that were hunted for their fur. The locals knew to avoid killing sick animals but as the demand and price went up for marmot fur, many migrants and inexperienced hunters would kill and sell diseased animals as well. I couldn't help but see the news about an Ebola outbreak in the Congo where history is repeated itself because of poor hygiene, illiteracy, and a belief in old superstitions.
This book is a fascinating bit of history I was unaware of until now. If you enjoy a good medical thriller with a historical background, then this is a story for you.~Ernie Hoyt