Review: Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles

Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles. Henry Holt and Co., 2012. Currently Available.

Genre: Middle Grade Historical Fiction.

Face Value: This cover is understated, but quite beautiful. I love the pastel rendering of a sick ward. It captures the loneliness of the setting, which is significant in the character’s personal discoveries. The cloudy background seeps throughout the image, and makes it feel not quite real. When I started reading, it was difficult for me to believe that sanatoriums like the one described in the story actually existed. The setting had a dreamlike quality – so distant from my own experience, but something that many people had experienced years ago. I love how effectively this cover image captures the mood of the book.

Does it break the slate? It is slow to do so, but yes! Eventually Evvy emerges as a Slatebreaking character. On the cover there is a blurb from Linda Sue Park that says, “…Evvy is the best kind of hero: a quiet one.” I was at first concerned that Evvy would never emerge as the hero. She was simply an observer in this unique setting. It took a long time for her to grow into a confident young woman, but it happened, and it was very satisfying to read.

Who would we give it to? I’ll tell you right away who I won’t give it to: anyone with a bad cough. I distinctly remember having a chest cold in middle school and reading about a character with tuberculosis. I convinced myself that I had consumption and would probably waste away within a year. (I do tend toward hypochondria though, so…maybe that’s just me.) This would be a lovely book to give to healthy readers who enjoy historical fiction.

Review: Is it weird that I like to read about communicable diseases? I find epidemiology absolutely fascinating, and I enjoy reading about it in fiction or nonfiction form. I also find the board game Pandemic inexplicably satisfying to play. Maybe I’m a weirdo, but as soon as I learned that Breathing Room was about a girl living in a sanatorium for TB patients, I marched right over to my local library and checked it out.

Breathing Room is less about the tuberculosis disease and more about how people cope with illness and isolation. There were enough gory details for readers about the shocking treatments used during the 1940s to keep me satisfied, but that certainly was not the focus of the book. Nor should it have been. Hayles introduces us to Evvy, a thirteen-year-old girl who is on her own for the very first time when she is sent to live at the Loon Lake Sanatorium in Minnesota.

Evvy is a timid girl who has always closely followed the lead of her twin brother, Abe. When she is sent away to Loon Lake – both for her own health and to protect her family from being infected – she finds herself isolated and completely lost. Without her twin there, Evvy suddenly must figure out who she is as an individual. The other girls in her ward have distinct personalities and preferences, yet Evvy struggles to feel confident without Abe around.

During her long stay at Loon Lake, Evvy comes into her own. At first she does a lot of watching and listening, mostly because the doctors’ orders restrict talking. Evvy notices that her love of language and words is something that could define her. She learns to appreciate poetry, and even tries her hand at writing some. When her friends need her support, Evvy steps up and acts more boldly and independently than she ever has before. Her stay at Loon Lake not only helps her become healthier, but it also allows her to become a more assertive young woman who cares deeply for those she loves.

Evvy sees some pretty terrible things at Loon Lake. She witnesses fast deaths and slow ones. Rather than becoming a miserable pessimist, Evvy decides that she must value life and capture its beauty with words. This may sound hopelessly cheesy, but Hayles writes Evvy’s journey in a way that makes it truly inspiring to read.

Reading Breathing Room made me feel grateful to live in a world in which I don’t have to worry about the day-to-day risk of diseases like tuberculosis or polio. In the grand scope of history, it’s only very recently that these diseases have become treatable. This is something that my grandparents lived through, and it’s hard to believe that we have come so far. I’m inspired to read more about the history of tuberculosis, so I have added Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure to my reading list. It’s a new juvenile non-fiction book about TB and its spread through populations. The reviews have been excellent. Perhaps it would make a great classroom pairing with Breathing Room.

Reviewed from library copy.

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3 Responses to Review: Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles

  1. This sounds like a really interesting Middle Grade historical fiction book. I don’t know, I find morbid things interesting. I’ve learned about tuberculosis sanatorium in my Canadian history classes and it is quite scary. I love the quote though about the main character being a quiet hero – it really goes to show that introverts can be heroes too, yay! Great review 🙂

    • Brianna says:

      Thanks for the comment! I agree that it’s nice to have and introvert at the center of a story. This reminded me of another book that absolutely captivated me when I was a kid. It was a memoir for young readers written by a woman who had been placed in an iron lunch during a post-WWII polio outbreak in Minnesota. It was fascinating and morbid and scary. I don’t remember the title, but reading Breathing Room has inspired me to go hunting for it.

  2. randikins says:

    Excellent review! I have a morbid interest in diseases as well. I especially find TB interesting, and have since I first read Jane Eyre, one of my favorites! It’s sad to think about how both the physically and mentally ill have been treated in such recent history. But those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it! I haven’t heard of Breathing Room, so I’m going to have to look for a copy. Thanks for sharing, Brianna! 🙂

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