Looking for a book to read about the a well known pandemic that killed millions globally, and hearing good things about The Pull of the Stars, Jan and I decided to read this story of a fictitious understaffed and overwhelmed hospital in Ireland, and its staff focusing on those in the maternity section infected with the flu.
“She murmured, We could always blame the stars. I beg your pardon, Doctor? That’s what influenza means, she said. Influenza delle stelle—the influence of the stars. Medieval Italians thought the illness proved that the heavens were governing their fates, that people were quite literally star-crossed. I pictured that, the celestial bodies trying to fly us like upsidedown kites. Or perhaps just yanking on us for their obscure amusement.”
“This flu was clogging the whole works of the hospital. Not just the hospital, I reminded myself—the whole of Dublin. The whole country. As far as I could tell, the whole world was a machine grinding to a halt. Across the globe, in hundreds of languages, signs were going up urging people to cover their coughs.”
It’s 1918 and the flu pandemic is raging across the globe. Nurse Julia, along with her aide, Bridie, is in charge of a small hospital ward, a supply closet really, for pregnant women suffering from the flu. Dr. Katherine Lynn, a real person of history, is the physician in charge.
The poverty, illness, and malnutrition of the poor, along with supply shortages and misinformation, made the health professional’s job even more challenging during an already challenging time. As a nurse myself, I appreciated that the author portrayed Julia as compassionate, intelligent and capable.
The descriptions of childbirth and the conditions under which the doctors and nurses were expected to work are not for the squeamish. Maternal and infant death was common, usually under horrific circumstances. The medical knowledge was woefully inadequate by today’s standards, and it made me ever so grateful for the advances in modern medicine (and for epidurals!). It’s obvious Donaghue did her research.
Nearly the entire book is set in this small supply closet of a ward and the author managed to maintain interest and intensity. It would be easy for Julia and Bridie to give in to despair in the midst of such suffering but they provide us with an example of perseverance in the face of adversity.
On the heels of WWI, the world was hit with a devastating pandemic, one that killed young people at a far greater rate than the elderly. The overwhelming poverty, malnutrition and lack of basic medical care made a bad situation worse. At the same time, the world was dealing with the veterans of WWI who had devastating physical and emotional damage. Julia’s brother was one such casualty of the war.
The ending may be a little cliché but I had tears in my eyes as I finished, so there’s that. I closed the book with sadness for the past and hope for the future. It certainly put things into perspective. Some of the scenarios regarding the pandemic of 1918 are eerily familiar and as bad as it is, I’m ever so grateful I am dealing with the pandemic of 2020 and not the one of 1918.
This was a buddy read with my friend Marialyce, and it provided us with perspective and much to discuss. Don’t miss the afterward where the author tells us Dr. Lynn’s story.
As this book teaches us, this too shall pass….
“The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, the doctor told her. Or a stalemate, at the least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life.”
I will admit that I was one of those few outliers who didn’t like Emma Donahue’s book Room. There were multiple reasons, so I was a bit reticent about picking up this new book of hers fearing the very same issues I had with the other one would crop up once again.
Happily, although truth be told, I had some tiny issues with the story line, I did enjoy this book. As many know, we can’t help but see comparisons made between the Spanish flu of 1918, to the current situation we are faced with today. Although the Spanish flu is estimated to have killed 17-50 million of the world’s population, thankfully today’s pandemic’s numbers are not in that awful statistic. Also, the Spanish flu seemed to be particularly virulent among the young, a peculiarity, as most diseases often attack the old and the debilitated.
“The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed more people than the First World War—an estimated 3 to 6 per cent of the human race.”
We are introduced to a truly heroic nurse, Julie, an unmarried thirty-year-old who lives with her brother who has returned from the war a mute. Julie is assisted by a young volunteer, Bridie, who is an orphan from a local convent, and a doctor Dr Katherine Lynn (a real person woven into the story), sought by the police because of her affiliation with Sein Fein. Together they tackle the many issues connected with this flu in a small room that houses three ill maternity patients. All these women were brave and one can’t imagine how horrid it was to not only battle the flu but also be pregnant, with the specter of labor and delivery in front of them At the time, it was believed that the flu was responsible for premature births and the women, we meet do experience both the joys and the sorrows that accompanied life and death in a time where death, the bone man, seemed to be in every corner lying in wait.
It’s a horrendous situation and of course the times made it even more so as the people in Ireland where the story is set lived in crowded, horrible situations where sickness ran rampant. Women had many children, many of whom succumbed not only to the flu, but to lack of proper nutrition, housing, and care. The church at the time had stringent rules and regulations and children who were orphaned were let into a life of servitude to the convent/orphanages they were assigned to. Ms Donahue is clear in pointing out the abuses, and generally holds both the nuns and the male population in contempt. A child born disfigured or outside the bonds of marriage was shunned and made to bear their birth as a sin. Horrible indeed!
In essence this was an appalling story of times past but also a story of hope that with the aid and loving care of doctors and nurses, overworked then as they seem to be now, were the heroes of the times. Definitely a worthy story to be read.
“The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, the doctor told her. Or a stalemate, at the least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the world with each new form of life.”
and here’s the author
Born in Dublin, Ireland, in October 1969, I am the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue (the literary critic). I attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one eye-opening year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 I earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin (unfortunately, without learning to actually speak French). I moved to England, and in 1997 received my PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. From the age of 23, I have earned my living as a writer, and have been lucky enough to never have an ‘honest job’ since I was sacked after a single summer month as a chambermaid. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 I settled in London, Ontario, where I live with Chris Roulston and our son Finn and daughter Una.