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BookBrowse Reviews The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

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The Winter Soldier

by Daniel Mason

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason X
The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2018, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2019, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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The Winter Soldier is a story of love, courage, and the fragile human psyche set in a small Eastern European hospital during World War I.

Imagine the thousands of confounding cases doctors face routinely for which diagnoses are hard to come by. Now imagine an additional point of pressure on those decisions that must be made in a matter of seconds: the urgency of war. One wonders what mistakes are made and lived with under such harrowing circumstances, a question eloquently pondered by Daniel Mason in The Winter Soldier. It is a breathtaking and evocative novel on multiple fronts, but above all, it is the story of human frailty among those who have sworn to "first, do no harm."

The 22-year-old Lucius Krzelewski is born into a wealthy Polish family who have sunk roots in Vienna. Lucius finds medicine to be his way of giving back to society, but three years into his studies, World War I breaks out and he is caught in the whirlpool of history. Restless and in the prime of youth, he receives an additional boost when fellow Pole Madam Curie tells him at a professional dinner: "Save yourself. Genius favors the young. You are running out of time." These words inspire Lucius to join the war effort, where medical cases abound. After all, what better immersive experience for a young medical student like him than the battlefield trenches.

Lucius expects a fully staffed hospital, but he is instead posted to a small village in the Carpathian Mountains of Galicia (a former Eastern European country that straddled parts of modern day Ukraine and Poland). On the map it sat in a narrow valley on the northern slope of the mountains, "a finger's-breadth from Uzhok Pass on the Hungarian border." Here he must take charge of a makeshift hospital set up in a church where all the doctors have left and the only person in charge of operations is a mysterious nun, Sister Margarete. Under her brusque, take-no-prisoners tutelage, Lucius, who has never before handled a scalpel, quickly learns the tools of the trade.

The hospital squeaks along in "patch and send" mode on limited medical supplies (the only thing that flows in abundance is horilka, the local liquor, which Sister Margarete uses liberally as disinfectant and to buoy her own spirits). The somewhat predictable rhythm is upended when the titular "Winter Soldier" arrives, a Hungarian from Budapest, Sergeant Jozsef Horvath. The serviceman doesn't present with any immediate symptoms but it is very clear he is deeply damaged. The term PTSD was not a part of the medical lingo then, but Lucius classifies it as "nerve shock." The case intrigues him endlessly, and also tests him severely: ultimately he will make a decision that will compromise his oath and haunt him till the end. A slow-brewing romance between Lucius and Sister Margarete is also complicated by the chaos of war, as their simmering, half-baked intentions are dashed by the swallowing up of this small Galician town by Russian forces.

Author Daniel Mason is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry, and brings his own research interests to bear here. These include the subjective experience of mental illness and the influence of literature, history, and culture on the practice of medicine. The Winter Soldier weaves a spellbinding story, which draws you into another world from the very first page. At times the romance, also sensitively handled, overwhelms the central focus of the novel, which is trained on a doctor's remorse over a poorly handled decision. But the descriptions of wartime eastern Europe and the nuances of youth and inexperience and human error, are all hauntingly drawn to spectacular effect.

There is so much grandeur and sweep in these pages that you might be forgiven for not wanting to turn the last page. Few stories handle the human cost of war as delicately and perceptively as The Winter Soldier does. Read it. It's a bravura performance.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2018, and has been updated for the October 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Medicine and World War I

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