Think about a disease that nobody knew how to cure, and because it could not be reliably cured, its sufferers were rounded up, shunned and left to die painful, solitary deaths. That was tuberculosis a hundred years ago, the world inhabited by the characters in Louisville author James Markert's new novel A White Wind Blew (Sourcebooks Landmark, $25.99).
From 1910 to the early 1960s, hundreds suffering from "the white plague" streamed into the real-life Waverly Hills Sanatorium in southwestern Louisville. They were lined up on porches to take the fresh air, even in winter, with the idea that outdoor air had curative properties.
Doctors treated them with a range of options that befuddles us today: putting weights on their collarbones, deflating a lung, even removing ribs in a futile effort to help the patient breathe more easily.
Those who survived "made the walk" that allowed them to prove their stamina and be released; those who died were conveyed down the hill in a chute to be picked up for burial.
"Waverly is known as a haunted place," said Markert, a tennis pro-turned-novelist and screenwriter. He will appear Saturday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington. "They always talked about the barbaric surgeries. When I looked into it, it was barbaric, but it seems more medically desperate. It wasn't done for the sake of being cruel."
Waverly Hills, which although empty still stands, is the setting for Markert's novel about finding hope in the most hopeless of circumstances: Wolfgang Pike is a doctor who might yet make it into the priesthood, a Catholic at odds with his sternly Protestant mother, a man who witnessed the death of his father under circumstances that are not what they seem, and a widower whose wife was once a tuberculosis patient herself.
He also is a frustrated composer who finds himself at odds with some of the extremist patients at Waverly: members of the Ku Klux Klan, training their trademark hatreds for Catholics and people of color against Pike and his patients.
Pike generally toes the line at Waverly, but for one quirk: He makes music for his patients. He thinks it helps their recovery.
Pike then meets a difficult patient, perhaps the most colorful character in the book — and, Markert says, his favorite — who is a whiz-bang pianist, despite having lost three fingers in World War I. The patient's name is McVain, and each time he appears, he steals the scene.
But there's more in the book: multiple love stories, a new baby, a miraculous turnaround in an apparently fatal tuberculosis patient, a double-dealing patient who gets the justice coming to him, but not from Pike.
And then there's the biggest miracle of all: Pike finds the ability to construct, from his ragtag group of patients and staff, the makings of a concert orchestra and chorale. He is thwarted somewhat by the stodgy head of the hospital, and more by the personalities of the leading musicians themselves — McVain being a character too big to confine to Waverly, when he can be inciting riots in Louisville at large.
The book is at its best when Pike, McVain and their eclectic band of musicians are beating the odds, whether against tuberculosis or against stifling institutional mores.
"A lot of it plays into his lifelong quest to have the answers for faith: Where do we go when we die?" Markert said in a phone interview. "The music helped carry him through all of it. He was someone with a lot of turmoil."
Markert also wrote the screenplay for an independent movie due to have its commercial debut later this year: 2nd Serve, starring Lexington native Josh Hopkins (Cougar Town) as a plucky tennis pro.
A White Wind Blew is appealing to Kentuckians seeking a better understanding of old Louisville and the social strata that ruled the city, but it doesn't end with a definitive close of one door. Markert said the reader gets to make up his or her own mind about the path Pike takes.
"I did that consciously," he said. "By that time, I didn't think it mattered as much" detailing whether Pike would stick with medicine or return to the abbey at St. Meinrad in Indiana.
James Markert signs 'A White Wind Blew'
When: 2 p.m., March 16
Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Mall at Lexington Green, 161 Lexington Green Cir.
Learn more: (859)273-2911, Josephbeth.com
AT A GLANCE
About James Markert
Personal: Married, two children
Former career: Tennis pro
Books he would take on a desert island: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, The Alienist by Caleb Carr
How he started reading heavily: In high school, because he liked the works of Stephen King