Tony Holtzman's The Bethune Murals vividly captures the ways in which cold war anti-communism, interacting with corporate greed, environmental degradation and much else, infected the culture, not to mention the lives of its victims; and along the way offers an unforgettable history lesson in the moral, political and aesthetic issues raised.
--Victor S. Navasky
Former Editor and Publisher of The Nation and author of Naming Names
In his latest novel, Holtzman masterfully blends his narrative skills, scientific smarts and keen knowledge of historical context to weave a compelling story of personal burdens, courage and tragedy uncovered in the context of the very real suppression of scientific data on the toxicity of asbestos amid the sweeping reach of McCarthyism. Once again, Holtzman uses the beautiful and remote Adirondacks as a backdrop, this time to a cautionary tale relevant to our current political times.
Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (1994-2000); Dean, UCLA School of Public Health (2000-2012)
“A clever fusion of two fascinating historical plot threads and a reminder of how easily freedom of thought and expression can be stifled, even in a democratic society. Chilling and timely.”
--Roderick and Sharon Stewart
Authors of Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune
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.