A historical novel explores the relentless hunt for Communists in America in the 1950s.
It is 1953 and FBI agent Larry Crane is sent to the National Institutes of Health. His mission is to investigate Dr. Harold Hungerford, who has not yet signed a loyalty oath. The oath is meant to assure the U.S. government that Hungerford is not a Communist. The physician insists he is not one, though he refuses to sign the document. Crane wants to know whether Hungerford has ever associated with Communists. Hungerford divulges the name of Dr. Norman Bethune, a deceased Canadian physician, thinking that if he is going to give up a name, it might as well be someone who is dead. Bethune, or “Beth” as he was known, had a colorful past that included serving in World War I and tending to poor patients in Detroit. Beth, much like Hungerford, suffered from tuberculosis. Hungerford met him while both were recovering from the disease at a treatment facility in Saranac Lake, New York. Was Beth a Communist during his time there and was he using his influence to foment Soviet propaganda? The story goes on to examine the details of Beth’s stay and the impact his actions had years down the road. As strange as the whole situation might seem, Holtzman’s (Blame, 2016, etc.) book effectively portrays the truly frightening aspects of the Red Scare. Does the federal government really have a right to tell you what to sign and can it ruin your career if you refuse? The narrative raises such concerns, though it is unfocused in places. Not much of interest happens during Beth’s sojourn in Saranac Lake, outside of some tense moments when he receives an experimental treatment to intentionally collapse one of his lungs. An assortment of characters surrounding the facility and details of the dangers of asbestos provide some substance, though it is not until the spotlight returns to Hungerford that the story becomes engrossing. By 1953, Beth (who was a real person) is dead and tuberculosis is on the decline, but what about a man who, in the eyes of the government, is potentially tainted by association?
While it occasionally strays from pressing matters, this tale illuminates a bizarre investigation.