Book of letters sheds light on life of young tuberculosis patient

“The Girl in Building C: The True Story of a Teenage Tuberculosis Patient” edited by Mary Krugerud; Minnesota Historical Society Press; September 2018; 224 pp; $17.95.

By Ann Jonas
For The Visitor

Tuberculosis in the early 20th century was a concern throughout the country, including Minnesota. The disease was often called “consumption” because of the way it would slowly consume its victims, causing them to lose weight and waste away.

Deaths peaked in the state in 1918 when 2,543 died from this very contagious disease. To combat the disease, 19 sanitoriums were built in the early 1900s throughout the state.

Historian Mary Krugerud was awarded a Legacy Research Fellowship in 2015 from the Minnesota Historical Society to study the history of tuberculosis treatment at Minnesota’s sanitoriums. While researching the history of Ah-gwah-ching State Sanitorium in Walker, Krugerud discovered a cache of more than 300 letters written by a young tuberculosis patient to her parents during World War II.

Upon further research, Krugerud realized that Marilyn J. Barnes, the person who wrote the letters, was still alive. After a series of interviews with Marilyn, Krugerud realized that Marilyn’s story had value “as a candid memoir and an educational human interest story,” according to her blog.

The Minnesota Historical Society Press agreed and “The Girl in Building C” was published this September.

Marilyn Barnes was 16 years old in October 1943 and living with her parents and younger brother in St. Peter when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She was transported to Ah-gwah-ching, which was 225 miles from her home, and settled into her room on the second floor of Building C for treatment.

She spent almost three years in the sanitorium and wrote to her family often. Her mother saved the 303 letters and cards that Marilyn mailed home during that time. “The Girl in Building C” consists of selections of those letters along with details obtained during Krugerud’s conversations with Marilyn.

Woven into the narrative are black-and-white photographs and interesting bits of information explaining the methods for treating tuberculosis and notes on the historical context of events happening at that time.

Marilyn expected to be a patient at Ah-gwah-ching for a few months, but it took almost 35 months for her to recover and go home.

Treatment of tuberculosis in 1940s consisted of bed rest, isolation and some relatively new surgical procedures, all explained in the book.

The letters written by Marilyn tell of the food served in the sanitorium, her relationships with the other patients, the happenings and rumors of Building C, her treatments, the war going on overseas and her thoughts and feelings about being so far from home.

Her writing is in the distinct voice of a teenager in the 1940s: “Well, today I’m feeling just swell.” “Gee, is it ever beautiful out this morning.” “p.s. I’ve just about run out of popcorn now. Hint! Hint!”

Marilyn’s correspondence is almost always upbeat though she certainly had reasons to feel sorry for herself.

“The Girl in Building C” is an interesting, worthwhile read. It is an enlightening narrative of a spirited teenager who spent almost three years away from her home and family, relying on letters and notes from family and friends to help her battle and beat a worrisome disease.

Krugerud, who resides in Hutchinson, has written one previous book, “Interrupted Lives: The History of Tuberculosis in Minnesota and Glen Lake Sanatorium,” which is also about tuberculosis treatment.

“The Girl in Building C” is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University Bookstores.

Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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