Breath­ing Room

Mar­sha Hayles
  • Review
By – October 31, 2013

In 1940, the year in which this young adult nov­el is set, the war in Europe raged on and tuber­cu­lo­sis was a ter­ri­ble scourge on the Amer­i­can pub­lic health scene. The dis­ease was high­ly con­ta­gious and med­ical sci­ence was unsure of effec­tive and safe treat­ment. Fam­i­lies lived in ter­ror of acquir­ing this dread dis­ease and watch­ing it spread from one fam­i­ly mem­ber to the next. One of the most com­mon treat­ments was the rest cure” in which a patient was sent to a san­i­tar­i­um for an aggres­sive, harsh-seem­ing course of med­ical treat­ment and sep­a­rat­ed for long peri­ods of time from fam­i­ly and friends with even postal mail and memen­tos from home often restrict­ed. The sto­ry fol­lows about a year in the lives of sev­er­al young girls, patients, and room­mates in this type of san­i­tar­i­um. They need, in spite of their pre­car­i­ous phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions, to find ways to sup­port one anoth­er through this try­ing ordeal and its many chal­lenges, fre­quent­ly watch­ing many around them die and each con­tin­u­al­ly won­der­ing whether she will be next. One of the room­mates is Jew­ish and in addi­tion to all the oth­er intense pres­sures inher­ent in the sit­u­a­tion, she must hide her Jew­ish­ness for fear of not receiv­ing prop­er care in the anti-Semit­ic cli­mate of the area and the time. When her room­mate uncov­ers this close­ly guard­ed secret, she too must share in the respon­si­bil­i­ty of keep­ing her friend’s back­ground pri­vate in an envi­ron­ment where pri­va­cy is a lux­u­ry impos­si­ble to rely upon. The brav­ery, strength, and char­ac­ter of the young pro­tag­o­nists are inspir­ing; the old-fash­ioned words pluck” and grit” come most read­i­ly to mind. This is a grip­ping read on a top­ic not often addressed to the young adult audi­ence and is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for ages 10 and up.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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