Tony Holtzman’s novel describes the Red Scare in Saranac Lake
Tony Holtzman, who summers in the Adirondacks, continues to write compelling historical fiction about the area. His trilogy “Axton Landing,” “The Railroad” and “Forever Wild” is required reading for those who want to understand the 19th century industries and legislation that have shaped the Adirondack Park.
Holtzman’s new novel, “The Bethune Murals,” focuses on Norman Bethune, a physician who was a tuberculosis patient at Trudeau Sanatorium in the 1920s. A decade later, Bethune became a well-known Communist, working, and dying, in China. Holtzman begins his story in the New York City office of FBI agent Larry Crane, who is meeting with Dr. Arnold Springer, the director of the Trudeau Foundation’s Saranac Laboratory in Saranac Lake. Dr. Springer has come to New York to warn the FBI that the Trudeau Foundation is under the influence of Communists.
The year is 1953, the time of the House Un-American Activities investigations and the ascendency of Senator Joseph McCarthy. It is when prominent people were asked “are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party,” and to sign a loyalty oath to the United States. A Seinfeld episode made fun of the era and “naming names,” but it wasn’t funny when it happened.
Dr. Springer tells Agent Crane that the Trudeau Foundation Board of Trustees are Communists who want “to destroy capitalism.” So begins Agent Crane’s interest in Communists in Saranac Lake, and to a patient who drew murals while he was there in 1927.
Norman Bethune drew the murals on paper that he hung on the walls of the cottage he shared with other men at the sanatorium. The murals’ existence surfaces when Crane tries to determine if the Communism Dr. Springer says is in Saranac Lake began before 1953, perhaps when Bethune was a patient. Crane interviews Bethune’s Sanatorium cottage mates, who are now prominent physicians, about Bethune’s Communism. In fact, they have no recollection of ideological conversations.
As the title suggests, the murals play a pivotal role in this novel, but not because of what they reveal about Communism. And it is this aspect that makes Tony Holtzman’s book so effective. While he captures the hysteria of the Red Scare of the 1950’s very well, he also describes the collateral damage this purge caused. For the murals say nothing about Communism, but they reveal the secret a wife has kept hidden for more than twenty years. Hers is just one of the lives damaged by people making America safe from Communism. “The Bethune Murals” reminds us that crusades cause casualties.
Holtzman, who is a medical doctor himself, effectively creates two Saranac Lakes. One is the flourishing TB cure industry of the 1920s, the other is the dying of that business in the 1950s because of the effective use of antibiotics for tuberculosis. That second Saranac Lake is infected by the distrust permeating the rest of America.
A book set in the 1950s that revisits the 1920s is curiously current in 2018. A Russian dictatorship is still trying to damage American democracy today. And, again, our institutions are under attack from partisans who see their opponents as not only mistaken, but evil. Loyalty is also part of the political conversation, though now loyalty is more about a person than a philosophy.
In an afterword, Dr. Holtzman explains what parts of his novel are factual, what parts are fictional. That is quite useful, but this book is more about truth than facts. It’s a good read, and a sobering reminder.