Every once in a great while a book comes along that gives me so much pleasure that when I reach the end I want to start again at the beginning. Such a book is Daniel Way’s All in a Day’s Work: Scenes and Stories from an Adirondack Medical Practice, published jointly in 2004 by Syracuse University Press and the North Creek Railway Depot Preservation Association.
I didn’t expect this book to wow me. It came to me out of the blue, as a gift, and after an initial browse, two things struck me. First, sampling a few pages, I found the writing earnest but sometimes awkward. Second, browsing the book’s 105 color photographs, produced in medium format by the author, I was dismayed. The images were superb, but the small size granted them on the page was shocking. Landscape photos deserving two-page spreads were reproduced like passport photos.
To be fair, publishing photographic books isn’t easy. Reproduce images as handsome as these in a sensible size, and the book’s retail price soars. So publishers with shallow pockets are forced to miniaturize, for better and for worse.
All in a Day’s Work is a highly original production. It’s written and illustrated by a Glens Falls medical doctor who makes the rounds of clinics scattered across the southern Adirondacks. Doctor-writer-photographer Daniel Way gathered the word-pictures, close-up portraits and landscape photographs that make up this book while tending to the sick and aged in such places as Indian Lake, North Creek, Long Lake, Warrensburg, Chestertown, Speculator and Wells. Way reports that he’s traveled 300,000 miles in his work. That’s quite an odyssey, and the reader gets a rich and memorable taste of it here.
One lazy Sunday morning, I propped myself up in bed, sipped a cup of coffee and gave All in a Day’s Work a chance to exceed expectations. Almost at once, I found myself caught up in the lives of Way’s proud but often suffering patients, and mesmerized, too, by his color portraits of them. Way walks a tightrope. On one side he risks falling into sentimentality and bathos, on the other slipping into clinical detachment and condescension. But the doctor walks the fine line and never falters. He’s plainspoken, honest and full of heart. Quirky men and women and the major and minor illnesses they face are presented with just the right doses of sympathy and detail.
Too many books about the Adirondacks leave out or give short shrift to the region’s people. Landscapes and wildlife dominate. Way goes a long way toward countering this trend, and not by excess in the other direction. He celebrates Adirondack landscapes, and simultaneously he casts a tender light on 50 women and men every bit as craggy, untamed, rugged and beautiful as the mountains they inhabit.
Here meet Isabel Brown, Bunny Annable, Mildred Prouty and Helen Donahue. Way groups the women as the “four merry widows of Riparius.” At 87, 89, 86 and 90 respectively when they posed for Way’s Bronica, they are as full of life and fun as any group of teenagers. The women get together often to play cards, trade stories and tell jokes. Of his visit with the widows, Way writes: “I could see for myself the powerful spiritual energy such interplay generated. I found myself wishing I could capture that energy and put it in a pill that I could then prescribe to all my patients. I had to admit that the medicine that kept these women young was not in any pill; it was their friendship.” Who can argue with that?
Get to know Ed Wells, a lovable, incorrigible Bakers Mills rogue and ladies’ man. “Eddie was a free spirit who lived for a time off Bartman Road…,” writes Way. “Despite his simple and remote dwelling, he followed a rather actively hedonist lifestyle, always look for a good time at any cost.”
The accompanying photo of Wells shows a sinewy, hawk-faced man, squeezed between a Formica table and a woodstove. He lived in a shack no larger than a tool shed. “His sleeping area appeared to be a tiny wooden slab in the corner. Yet, he was perfectly content.” Never a gossip,Way is too much a gentleman to give us the juicy details of his patient’s misbehavior. I enjoyed that about the book. Way holds a little back rather than give too much. It’s a great hook for keeping the reader on the end of the line, hungering for more. There are amazing stories in this book, ones that remind us that every stooped, worn-out looking old man or woman we see in our Adirondack journeys may be at the core as sturdy as a towering beech or hemlock. There’s Winifred Young, an African-American woman suffering from severe complications of diabetes who was brought to Way in a coma. He is able to help her, and in the account of the intervention, we get a sense of the doctor’s satisfaction and pride. Still,Way feels he’s been handed the better end of the bargain. He writes of a conversation with Young: “Did you know that you are beautiful?” she asked him. He writes: “I glanced over my shoulder to see if someone was standing behind me while she continued. ‘Everyone is beautiful in some way.’ The most amazing thing was that this was no act by some burned-out flower child. She was utterly sincere.”
And there’s Joe Minder, of North Creek, who fought under horrific conditions in the Philippines at the outset of World War II, then spent three-and-a-half brutal, soul-testing years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. The doctor/author knows when to step out of the way and let material speak for itself, and he does so here. We read excerpts from Minder’s journals that bring harrowing experiences painfully to life. In Way’s stirring photo, we see Minder at home, with artifacts relating to his ordeal—a battered canteen that saved him from certain death, for example— arranged poignantly around him.
Some of the most affecting stories and photographs in the book involve couples. At once I think of Ed and Golda Hebeart, whom Way found living in a trailer in North Creek without running water or electric power. They existed in squalor, but home is said to be where the heart is, and the Hebearts’ trailer and surrounding acres were their paradise. Eventually public officials forced the Hebearts off their land, which was then sold, and into a house with central heat and running water. “Ed was heartbroken,” writes his doctor, “… and died within a few months of the move.”
For sheer courage, there’s no pair in the book more inspiring than Knut Kristensen and Cate Mandigo. Kristensen suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease and might have been buried long ago if not for his extraordinary will to live and do productive work. He moved to the North Country after his diagnosis, and even though confined to a wheelchair and dependent on a feeding tube and ventilator managed to design and build the house of his dreams. After his wife left him and his children could no longer cope with the hurdles of his disease, a Wevertown artist named Cate Mandigo met Kristensen, and the two fell in love. Today, Mandigo’s work (she’s a painter) flourishes, and Kristensen is writing memoirs and designing houses. They live together in Wevertown.
Every doubt I had at the beginning of this book was erased by the end. Way’s All in a Day’s Work is a powerful, affecting work. It belongs on every Adirondack bookshelf and every nightstand, where it deserves to be picked up often and read again and again.