Tag Archives: pandemic

Pandemics and plagues of the past : in literature

A year ago, most of us could never have imagined the year we’ve had – and the continued social distancing,  wearing masks, and general fear has been wearing, oh, so thin. While vaccines are now on the radar, we still have a ways to go before the world goes back to “normal.” Sometimes, reading about pandemics of the past can help us put things in perspective, to realize how good we’ve got it.

I recently read two novels which take place during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 (which has little to do with Spain, by the way). From February 1918 to April 1920 the flu affected 500 million people. In the United States, Philadelphia was particularly hard hit – 12,000 deaths resulted from crowds gathered to watch a parade to promote government bonds during World War I. “The Orphan Collector” by Ellen Marie Wiseman and “As bright as heaven” by Susan Meissner (a much better book) give a view into families in Philadelphia who were affected by the flu in tragic ways. I was reading one of these books on the ferry and looked up to see folks wearing masks, but jovially socializing. Wow, that made me grateful.

Nancy Jordan alerted me to another book that takes place during this time period, but in Ireland:  “Pull of the Stars,” a novel by Emma Donoghue. Nancy writes:

Imagine a temporary maternity ward in a hospital in Ireland during the 1918-19 pandemic.  The ward was created out of a storage area to house pregnant women near term that have the flu.  It’s small, cramped and understaffed.

Three or 4 pregnant women are housed here during the 3 days the novel takes place, and sometimes a newborn or two.  The main character is a young nurse who has been put in charge of the women, because no other nurse is available.  She recruits a very young helper, virtually off the street with no experience, to help in the chaos.

This historic novel is intense, and suspenseful, bouncing from crisis to crisis.  Because of the pandemic, the hospital staff is dropping like flies, as are the patients.  There just are not enough doctors or nurses to care for the patients.  Our heroine, Julia Power, is very capable, but she is not a doctor and has never been in charge of a ward before.  She’s running on very little sleep, and has little time to eat.  When Bridie, a young, energetic girl shows up and says she’ll help, Julia, against her better judgement, agrees, after being assured that Bridie has had the flu.

The patients are well-developed characters who are suffering in different ways.  Some die but their babies survive, some live but lose their babies.  Some are likeable, some are not.   The new helper, Bridie, is a whirlwind of activity, doing everything she’s asked in record time, very observant and a fast learner.  The reader falls in love with her very quickly.  As does Julia, leading to the tragic end of the novel, but there is an example of finding bright spots in the middle of darkness.   

The novel points up the similarities of this pandemic of over 100 years ago to Covid in current times, and also shows that we haven’t learned that much!

Nancy also writes about “A Year of Wonders,” by Geraldine Brooks: [This novel] is a slower paced novel about the plague in the 1600’s in a small village in England.  As villagers start to sicken and die in grotesque ways, the village leader, a man of the church, realizes what’s happening, and convinces the entire village to quarantine.  They get supplies by leaving lists of needs with money at a drop off place, and in return a villager from a nearby village brings supplies.  The author realistically draws the reader in and makes us feel the fear and pain.  She evokes the feel of living in a small community where everyone is dependent of everyone else to do the right thing.

The heroine, Anna Frith, a poor and uneducated young woman who has lost her husband, and an almost-lover, and her 2 little boys, works for the reverend and his wife.  She and the wife become very good friends and the main caregivers in the village, learning about herbs and poultices from the local ‘witch’ who succumbed.  Over the course of a year there are many tragedies and incidents of rebellion and conflict.  Just when the Reverend has convinced the villagers to burn everything they own, all their possessions, his wife contracts the sickness, and dies.  Shortly after, the plague runs its course and dies out.  As the Reverend and Anna begin to pick up the pieces, some very shocking news comes out, and the novel ends in a surprising way.

Nancy recommends both of these books whole-heartedly. The interesting thing about some of these fairly recent books is that they were written before COVID-19 broke out, but are very timely for us during this recent pandemic. The ones regarding the 1918 pandemic were probably inspired by the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu. But a book written in 1939, only 20 years after that pandemic, Katharine Anne Porter’s book, “Pale horse, pale rider,” includes a novella that takes place in Denver during the 1918 pandemic. My friend Liz told me about this one, as well as a course at OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning), which started January 5th, Ages of Plagues, taught by Margaret Creighton and Rob Smith, a remote 5 week course which “draws on the recent and not-so-recent past to examine literary responses to plagues.” It would be interesting to know what books they recommend to read, to give us perspective on this past year.

All this is to remind of the power of fiction to help us learn about the past, and give us a basis for understanding our world today.