When The Winter Soldier opens, Lucius Kszelewski, youngest son of a patrician Polish family living in Vienna, is on a train bound in the dead of winter for a field hospital in the Carpathian Mountains.  It is 1915, and Austria-Hungary is at war with Russia.  Lucius, a medical student, has completed only six semesters of medical school, but World War I has intervened, and due to a shortage of physicians in the army the government has decreed that students may graduate early, become doctors, and immediately be commissioned.   Lucius has done so and is on his way to Lemnowice, a Galician village, where he believes he will work with other physicians and finally learn to be “a real doctor.” 

When he arrives, he finds that the hospital is an expropriated village church overrun by rats and ravaged by typhus, and he is the only physician.  The hospital is run by a nun, Sister Margarete, assisted only by orderlies, and the patient load runs the gamut from fractures and gunshot wounds to gangrenous legs and massive head trauma.  The front is only a few kilometers away, and the wounded arrive continuously; the quiet and formal Sister Margarete confidently and  surreptitiously guides him through rounds, surgeries, and battlefield medicine.  Lucius is initially wary of her, perhaps a bit awed by her, and ultimately falls in love with her.    

The transforming event is the arrival of the winter soldier, Jozsef Horvath, brought in from the snow mute and shell-shocked, but with no visible wounds.  Lucius is fascinated by diseases of the brain and mind, and this patient presents a tremendous challenge.  Lucius is sure that Horvath has “war neurosis,” what the British physicians of the time were calling shell shock and what we today would call PTSD, and he is determined to understand and heal him.  Lucius and Margarete make slow progress with their patient, but his attempts to care for Horvath have unintended effects, and Lucius must then deal with the consequences of his actions.  

The war, and the hospital routine, go on.  One day, while Lucius and Margarete are relaxing in the woods, Lucius asks her to marry him.  Margarete runs off, and Lucius returns to the village, but Margarete is not there.  While Lucius and the staff search for her, Lucius gets lost; he stumbles onto a battlefield and is dragooned into service with a regiment of the Austrian infantry.  He escapes and tries to make his way back to the field hospital, and to Margarete, but Lemnowice has fallen to the Russians.  The hospital has been evacuated—and Margarete has disappeared.   Lucius’ search for her will take him across the war-torn remnant of the Empire.


The Winter Soldier is a war story, a doctor story, and a romance.  It also poses a wrenching question of medical ethics.  This is a lot to ask of any novel, but Mason pulls it off with aplomb.  The writing is lyrical; the author’s descriptions of the variation of the seasons in the Carpathian forests are poetic and beautifully detailed, and his characterizations are finely drawn.  We can not only clearly see, but feel we know, these people, not only the major figures of the doctor and the nurse, but also the orderlies, the Austrian soldiers, Lucius’ somewhat bemused Professor Zimmer, and Lucius’ parents (who are marvels of characterization:  the retired officer father who lives on past military glory and cannot see his son for who he is, and the controlling, clever, acid-tongued society grande dame mother who can only see her son for who she thinks he should be).  Lucius and Margarete feel real, and their interaction feels real…and complicated.  The historical setting comes alive with detail, and the reader truly feels that they are in that place at that time, whether at a formal dinner in a Viennese mansion or treating war casualties in a Galician backwater.  

The medical details are correct, not just the medical terms but even the way in which they are used in dialogue, which is not surprising, as Mason is a physician; it isn’t always easy to get this right, but Mason does.   But the true heart of the medical story here is the ethical quandary in which Lucius finds himself—the complex nature of the doctor-patient relationship, the motivations which drive it, and the decisions we make.  Although this takes up a relatively short page count, its repercussions continue throughout the novel. 

The novel has a particular, though minor, contemporary resonance for the time of COVID-19 (though it was released two years before the pandemic occurred).  The action of the novel is set in motion when, due to a war-induced doctor shortage, medical schools decided to allow upper-level students like Lucius to graduate early and become doctors, and then immediately posted them, often with little practical experience, to field hospitals near the front lines.   Several American medical schools took a somewhat similar action this spring when doctors were desperately needed during the coronavirus pandemic, although this only applied to fourth-years who were but a few months short of graduation, and would have already had the clinical experience which Lucius lacked.  So while the situations aren’t truly analogous, the concept of opting into a trial by fire is.  

The Winter Soldier can be appreciated for its historical perspective, its story of human relationships, the ethical dilemma it poses, and the beauty of its prose.  Or enjoyed for what it is—a great read. 


Little, Brown

Place Published

New York



Page Count