‘San Life’ inspires Wixson’s new novel

Jul 13, 2014
Maine farmer, author and itinerant Quaker minister Jennifer Wixson is pictured on her farm in Troy.

Troy — Local farmer and author Jennifer Wixson is back with “The Songbird of Sovereign,” the third book in her Sovereign Series of rural Maine novels. The novel, to be released Saturday, July 19, by White Wave, is set in the 1940s at Windmere, a fictitious sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis loosely based on several sanatoriums in Maine during that time period.

The novel is a prequel to the other two books in Wixson’s four-novel series and moves back and forth between the 1940s and the present day as the main character, 88-year-old Miss Hastings, recalls her childhood at Windmere. In August 1941, at age 16, Jana Hastings, a musical prodigy then performing on the stages of New York as The Songbird of Sovereign, finds her career cut short by TB. At Windmere various events — including first love, first loss, and the thundering approach of World War II — catapult the self-centered teenager into mature womanhood.

Wixson spent months researching “San Life,” as so-called “lungers” (TB sufferers) described their daily life at the sanatorium. Before the advent of antibiotics, those who contracted TB, a highly infectious disease, were isolated from the general population and treated at three sanatoriums in Maine: Western Maine Sanatorium in Hebron; Central Maine Sanatorium in Fairfield; and Northern Maine Sanatorium in Presque Isle. Wixson said she wanted readers to feel as though they are at Windmere with Jana. To make that work, she needed to get a good understanding of a patient’s daily life at the sanatorium.

“I relied heavily upon the Maine Memory Network, which has wonderful photographs and stories of San Life at the Western Maine Sanatorium,” she said.

The “fresh air” concept of the sanatorium evolved in Europe in the second half of the 19th century, and quickly became popular in the United States in the early 20th century. Antibiotics for the treatment of TB were discovered in 1946 and by 1970, sanatoriums in the United States were all but extinct. The Central Maine Sanatorium was the last in Maine to close, shutting its doors in 1969. Many Maine families, including Wixson’s own, had members who were treated at one of the three state sanatoriums.

“My great-uncle met his wife at the Central Maine Sanatorium in Fairfield,” she said. “I thought that was quite romantic when I was a child.”

Wixson will read from her new book and discuss her Sovereign Series at a fundraiser for and at the Troy Union Church, Bangor Road/routes 202 and 9, Thursday, July 24, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Copies of the book will be on sale and $5 from the sale of each book will go to support the Troy Union Church Steeple Project.

Wixson also will autograph copies during the Beyond the Sea Book Festival at Lincolnville Beach Saturday, July 26, from noon to 2 p.m. For more information, visit TheSovereignSeries.com.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115; or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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