In the shadows of New York City’s North Brother Island stand the remains of a shuttered hospital and the haunting memories of quarantines and human experiments. The ruins conceal the scarred and beautiful Cora, imprisoned there by contagions and the doctors who torment her. When Finn, a young urban explorer, arrives on the island and glimpses the enigmatic woman through the foliage, intrigue turns to obsession as he seeks to uncover her past–and his own family’s dark secrets. Nolden skillfully intertwines North Brother Island’s horrific and elusive history with a captivating tale of love, betrayal, survival, and loss.
The Vines by Shelley Nolden is a beautifully written historical mystery full of chills and suspense, and so timely with everything going on with the current pandemic. It shifts back and forth between past and present, and both timelines had me needing to know more – once I got started I had a very hard time putting this book down. I sincerely hope there will be more coming from Shelley Nolden before long.
I am pleased to have a guest post from the author on The Book’s the Thing today – please read on for some interesting history on North Brother Island, the real life setting for The Vines.
Leave a comment below for your chance to win a free copy of THE VINES, along with a mug that features a unique map of North Brother Island, a tea bag and bookmark. (US ONLY) Winner will be chosen on 3/31/21.
Discovering the Dark History of North Brother Island
by Shelley Nolden, Author of The Vines
After spending over a decade working in New York City, utterly oblivious to North Brother Island, I was introduced to this eerie, fascinating place via a sharp elbow jab to the ribs. My husband and I had been on a plane descending to LaGuardia Airport, and he’d had the window seat. Elbowing him back, I leaned across him and gawked at the small island, with its abandoned, crumbling structures surrounded by trees, skeletal in February.
“You should write a book about that island,” my husband casually said.
As soon as we landed, I turned to the Internet and was shocked by the dark history conveyed in the few articles I was able to find about North Brother. I felt compelled to learn more about this place that had been so physically close yet completely off my radar. And I knew that my husband was on to something: North Brother Island would make an excellent setting for a novel.
The abandoned structures we’d seen from thousands of feet above had once been a quarantine hospital for New York City’s poor immigrants, who’d lived in tenements where contagions could easily spread. Previously located on Blackwell’s Island, Riverside Hospital was relocated to North Brother Island in 1881 to address a growing smallpox epidemic. The new facility officially opened in 1885. Over the next two decades, an increase in infectious disease outbreaks—from smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and typhoid fever—spurred the addition of more pavilions and tents.
To learn more about what life must have been like for these immigrants, I turned to Jacob Riis’s writings. A journalist and photographer, Riis authored the book, How the Other Half Lives, which led to a social reform revolution. His article about Riverside Hospital, published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in July 1902 was instrumental in my efforts to understand the patient experience for those sent to Riverside Hospital.
By the early 1900’s, Riverside had earned a reputation as a place where immigrants were sent to die. So to prevent families from fearing the facility (and thus hiding their ill), the city embarked on a campaign to improve Riverside’s campus as well as its reputation. Early photographs of the island show its transformation over time from a crude complex into a charming destination with tidy paths, brick buildings, and specimen trees.
On June 15, 1904, the small island became the site of New York City’s largest loss of life tragedy before 9/11. The PS General Slocum steamship, chartered by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kleindeutchland for a picnic outing at Locust Grove, caught fire. Its captain, William Van Schaick, ran the ship aground at North Brother’s southwestern shore. Riverside Hospital’s staff did all they could to rescue the passengers. However, due to a lack of lifeboats and functioning life preservers, as well as poor decision-making by the captain, over 1,100 victims died that day—mostly women and children. The overwhelming grief borne by a single community is believed to be one of the primary reasons Kleindeutschland no longer exists within Manhattan.
In Edward O’Donnell’s breathtakingly thorough and impactful book, Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, he paints a heart-wrenching account of this tragedy. As I read his book, I knew that my novel needed to include this largely forgotten event in New York City’s history. His detailed account enabled me to describe the rescue efforts by Riverside’s staff once the captain had run the Slocum aground as well as include some of the real people who’d been there.
In 1907, North Brother Island became home to Typhoid Mary. The Department of Health gave Mary Mallon, an asymptomatic carrier of Salmonella typhi, a choice: have her gall bladder removed (where the bacteria were believed to reside) or live on North Brother Island. She refused the surgery, which was dangerous and not guaranteed to work. So the Department of Health forced her to move into a small bungalow on the island built just for her. In 1910, her solicitor secured her freedom. Following a typhoid fever outbreak in 1914 at a maternity ward where she’d been illegally serving as a cook, they exiled her once again to North Brother Island, where she stayed until her death from a stroke in 1938.
Many articles and books have been written about Typhoid Mary but one proved particularly invaluable in my quest to understand this infamous woman, whom I wanted to include as a secondary character in The Vines. Mary Beth Keane’s Fever: A Novel of Typhoid Mary depicted Mary Mallon as a flawed yet passionate, vulnerable woman who’d been dealt an unfair hand. Keane’s portrayal of Mallon contradicted the newspaper accounts which vilified her. Both Keane’s insight into the real woman behind the headlines, as well as her descriptions of Mary’s life on North Brother Island, aided my efforts in bringing Typhoid Mary to life in my novel.
Following World War I, Riverside Hospital briefly served as a drug rehabilitation center for treating returning soldiers with drug addictions.
Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, Riverside Hospital remained a quarantine facility for those afflicted with contagious diseases. However, advancements in public health, epidemiology, and pharmaceuticals eliminated the need for a remote isolation facility.
Disease outbreaks and the advancements in immunology intended to stop them are themes that run through my novel. I completed extensive research on historical outbreaks and the viruses specifically referenced in The Vines. Additionally, I researched the history of microbiology to ensure that my characters with medical degrees possess an accurate level of knowledge for the time period. Through that process Microbe Hunters by Paul De Kruif and F Gonzalez-Crussi became one of my favorite non-fiction books.
After briefly operating as barracks during World War II, Riverside again housed soldiers (and their families) while they were studying at NYC universities under the GI bill. During this period North Brother Island contained a flourishing family community, complete with a grocery store, cafeteria, library, and movie theatre.
But once the veterans had completed their degrees, the facility sat idle until July 1952 when the city reopened it as an experimental rehabilitation treatment center for heroin-addicted juveniles. Latino American poet Frank Lima was one of the program’s only success stories.
Photographs, available online, show the teens in treatment enthusiastically participating in school activities. However, the graffiti that remains on the walls of the rooms within the Tuberculosis Pavilion, photographed by more recent visitors to the island, tell a different story. One of these images shows a penciled plea: “Help me. I’m being held here against my will.”
Following the program’s termination in 1963, Riverside was shuttered, with all electricity, phone, and ferry service to the island discontinued.
Throughout the decades that followed, New York City considered many proposed uses for the space, including a “center for derelicts,” maximum-security prison, landfill, homeless shelter, and quarantine facility for AIDS patients. As the years passed, a forest slowly took hold. Seemingly hellbent on returning the land to its natural state, the indigenous and invasive species have been uprooting and tearing apart the human-made structures.
In 1987, The New York City Audubon Society and the NYC Department of Environmental Conservation determined that the island had become heavily populated by several species of colonial wading birds. In 2001, the New York City Department of Recreation acquired the island and designated it a “Forever Wild” resource with no public access.
Prior to the pandemic, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation allowed limited access through permit applications. One of these visitors was Christopher Payne, a renowned photographer. His coffee table book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, provides a visually stunning overview of the island and its history. His maps and labeled photographs gave me the background information necessary to piece together a fulsome understanding of the Riverside Hospital complex and how it has changed over time.
Throughout my research into the fascinating yet dark past of North Brother Island, I marveled at how right my husband had been. This island deserves to have its story told. So I began to plot the epic saga that became The Vines.
About the Author
A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Shelley Nolden is an entrepreneur and writer, now residing in Wisconsin. Previously, she lived in the New York City area, where she worked on Wall Street and first learned of North Brother Island. At the age of 31, Shelley was diagnosed with leukemia and completed treatment three years later. The sense of isolation and fear she experienced during her cancer ordeal influenced her spellbinding debut novel, THE VINES.