Book Tour: Shelley Nolden /The Vines


Today, the Books Delight is happy to host a blog stop on The Vines book tour. I read the book earlier this year and my post includes a review and a guest post by Shelly Nolden. 

The details:

The Vines by Shelley Nolden
Series: Yes, Book 1 of 2
Published: 23 March 2021
Publisher: Freiling Publishers
Genre: Historical Thriller
Pages: 412
available: hardback, ebook

Author Bio:

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. 

The Blurb:

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. 

Guest Post:

North Brother Island: A Little Known Historical Gem in New York City

Guest Post by Shelley Nolden, Author of The Vines


For millions of New Yorkers, the East River’s North Brother Island lurks innocuously in the backdrop of their daily lives. As they commute past, or work or live within view of it, their minds stay on where they are going or have been, or what’s for dinner—far more relevant concerns than the lingering evidence of death and despair shrouded in foliage in the summer and laid bare in the winter.

For the first decade that I worked in New York City, near Central Park and less than five miles away from North Brother Island, I’d been one of these people. Dozens of times I rode on planes that flew over the small spit of land before touching down at nearby LaGuardia Airport. As I gazed out the window, the gleaming skyscrapers of downtown and midtown Manhattan always pulled my attention to them, and away from the desolate twenty-acre island below.

Then, during a plane decent in February 2014, my husband, in the window seat, elbowed me in the side and directed my attention to North Brother, its abandoned, crumbling structures surrounded by skeletal trees. “You should write a book about that island,” he casually said.

Intrigued, I consulted a map on the Internet as soon as we landed and from there found a few articles with gripping soundbites. The island certainly had a dark history; I felt compelled to learn more about this place that had been so physically close yet completely off my radar. Even during my initial, surface-level digging, I couldn’t shake the notion that my husband had been right that it would make a great setting for a novel. 

The abandoned structures we’d gawked at 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—smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and typhoid fever—in New York City spurred the addition of more pavilions and tents. 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 the facility’s campus as well as its reputation.

On June 15, 1904, the small island became the site of New York City’s greatest loss of life tragedy prior to 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 1100 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 1907, North Brother Island became home to its now infamous resident, Typhoid Mary. The Department of Health gave Mary Mallon, an asymptomatic carrier of Salmonella typhi, a choice – to have her gall bladder removed (where the bacteria were believed to reside) or be exiled to 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, but following a typhoid fever outbreak in 1914 at a maternity ward where she’d been illegally serving as a cook, she was once again exiled to the island where she stayed until her death from a stroke in 1938.

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.

After briefly operating as barracks in the later years of World War II, Riverside once 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 it was reopened as an experimental rehabilitation treatment center for heroin-addicted juveniles. Latino American poet Frank Lima was one of the program’s only success stories.

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 manmade 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 was allowing limited access through permit applications. However, at the time of this writing, that program remains suspended due to COVID-19.

As I continued my research into the fascinating, yet dark, past of North Brother Island, I marveled at how right my husband had been. This was an island that deserved to have its story told. And so I began to plot the epic saga that became The Vines. 

My Review:

The historical storyline of The Vines attracted my attention when I first decided to read this novel by author Shelley Nolden. This is the story of Cora and her relationship with a line Gettler men, all doctors, save Finn, who is determined to uncover her secrets. The narrative follows two separate time lines, Cora’s past and a modern day setting. 

The characters are an interesting blend of characteristics, as are most humans. The Gettler men are loving fathers and husbands, yet they do despicable acts in the name of science. Their zeal to heal humanity blinds them to the humanness of their lab rat, Cora. The duality of their nature both tugs at and repels the reader, in equal measure. When faced with the possibility to cure a dying loved one, who among us might be tempted to play God with the life of a fellow creature. 

I really enjoyed the description of North Brother Island and its evolution from the home of a hospital for communicable diseases to a deserted sanctuary of herons. Cora, alone on the island becomes a modern-day Robinson Crusoe in the midst of one of the largest cities in the world. The historical details of the treatment of disease were interesting as the narrative transitioned from 1902 to 2008. 

The narrative slowly gives up its secrets in this well edited, intriguing story. The pace, while not zippy, moves the story forward in a timely manner. The book is long at slightly over 400 pages. I was disappointed that there was no resolution in the end as there is sequel in the works.   

I rate this book: 4 Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐   


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