Revisiting Barrett’s ‘The Air We Breathe’

A chance encounter at a local venue with author Andrea Barrett prompted me to reread her “The Air We Breathe,” published in 2007. Barrett, who lives in the Champlain Valley, is renowned for skillfully weaving science into her fiction — her “Ship Fever,” about a Canadian doctor and an epidemic, won the National Book Award.

“The Air We Breathe” begins in Tamarack Lake, a fictionalized Saranac Lake, in July 1916, when one of the main characters, Russian immigrant Leo Marburg, arrives by train from New York City, seeking “the cure” for his tuberculosis. Soon he meets Miles Fairchild, who leads discussions among the patients, as well as Naomi Martin and Eudora MacEachern. Naomi is a local teen who becomes Fairchild’s chauffeur, and Eudora is a worker in the ward.

Ms. Barrett faced a challenging task — writing interestingly about the tedious lives (quiet rest was the primary prescription) TB patients endured in the Tamarack sanatoriums and cure cottages. She succeeds, via an omniscient chorus-like “we” narrator, by describing the romance and rivalries among patients and caregivers, as well as insights into the medical treatment and business that is Tamarack Lake’s world.

But never far from beautiful Tamarack Lake are World War I horrors occurring in Europe. The news of battles on sea and land, and patients’ relatives killed in action, arrive in the Adirondacks by newspaper and letter during these months before America’s entrance into the war. The lectures Miles Fairchild bores his fellow patients with include discussion of the American Protective League, a group that sought to identify German sympathizers. Germany’s efforts to make an alliance with Mexico are part of the story of an Adirondack village centered on tuberculosis.

I first read “Breathe” about 2008, near the time Ms. Barrett did a reading at Paul Smith’s College. It was impressive then, but more compelling now. Just as “Breathe” described characters’ worlds within larger worlds, COVID changed my experience of Tamarack Lake. Learning about a town and characters focused on a disease after living in our world where COVID dominated the news, our health, our interactions — everything! — brought a very different lens to the experience. A line from a TB nurse in 1915 used as an epigraph for this novel reminds us of COVID’s disproportionate impact: “In the first place, tuberculosis is largely a disease of the poor–of those on or below the poverty line.”

The good news is that Andrea Barrett is still writing, and her new collection of stories, “Natural History,” will be published in September.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today