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Disease, Politics Permeate 'The Air We Breathe'

Once a biology student, Andrea Barrett now weaves science through her writing, in stories about an Arctic expedition, a typhus epidemic and, in her latest novel, about tuberculosis.

The book, titled The Air We Breathe, begins in 1916 when the United States is on the brink of entering World War I. It takes place at a sanatorium in the bracing air of the Adirondacks, where poor, immigrant tuberculosis patients are sent for a rest cure.

"Infectious disease exists at this intersection between real science, medicine, public health, social policy and human conflict," Barrett tells Melissa Block.

"There's a tendency of people to try and make a group out of those who have the disease. It makes people who don't have the disease feel safer, so I think it's that moment that really interests me," she says.

Barrett explores more than just the treatment of disease. At the time, wealthy tuberculosis patients lived in small cottages, while indigent and often immigrant patients were treated at large institutions, such as the one at the center of the story.

A wave of war and anti-immigrant hysteria flared up in the United States before it entered World War I. Barrett also examines how the patients at the sanatorium do or do not take action against the growing hysteria — and draws comparisons between the U.S. after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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