A Novel Virus: Tales of the Great Influenza

As this pandemic marches on, it becomes clear that that the Spanish Flu pandemic (which actually originated in Kansas) of over 100 years ago has much to teach us. The education is not just scientific, but the way people think and behave. I have some novels that use the Spanish Flu as a catalyst, and look at the souls of people in extraordinary times.

Emma Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars is like a fever dream in its propulsion through three days on a Dublin maternity ward for women with the Flu. Protagonist Julia Power is a nurse in charge of the small unit, aided at times by Dr. Kathleen Lynn (a real person) and by Bridie Sweeney, a product of "the pipe" of institutions running from indigent mother-and-baby homes, to orphanages, to the Magdalen Laundries. Julia's (and Donoghue's) fury at the injustices heaped on women is evident, but not overwhelming in this tale of complicated people doing the impossible for those who may not live to be grateful.

Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg follows the irrepressible bride of the eponymous inventor of a placebo, whose letters included with the concoction are meant to be the real cure. After influenza carries off Henry Wickett, his widow Lydia moves back in with her large, Irish-American family and then becomes an untrained nurse for an experimental study of the disease. Told in a variety of ways, including letters, newspaper articles, and comments in the margins by the dead, this novel gives a great sense of the time, place and society of early 20th Century America, as well as its characters.

There's a sense of foreboding in the beginning of Thomas Mullen's The Last Town on Earth, and it develops into a confrontation with the terrors that would epitomize the next 100 years. Commonwealth was built as a utopian mill town, but has sealed itself off in order to avoid the Spanish Flu. The killing of a trespassing soldier sets in motion events none of the characters could forsee, and they lay waste to the benevolent facade of the company and the citizens of Commonwealth.

Mary Oliver, daughter of an unconventional family, heads down to the Carolinas to visit her estranged Uncle Troop and his pregnant wife Maureen in Kaye Gibbons' Divining Women. Uncle Troop is emotionally abusing Maureen, and Mary decides to put a stop to it. Through letters from a family friend, Maureen and Mary see the possibilities available in the wider world. This atmospheric novel evokes Southern Gothic while also subverting it into something transcendent.  

Ellen Marie Wiseman's The Orphan Collector opens with 13-year-old Pia Lange, the daughter of German immigrants, attending a patriotic parade that turns into a superspreader event, killing her mother. With her father still at war, Pia tries to take care of her infant twin brothers, but is thwarted by her own case of influenza and a malevolent neighbor. Pia struggles to reunite her family in this harrowing, moving, and ultimately triumphant novel. 

Four women in the same family regard death differently in As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner. The Bright family fortunes seem to be looking up when they move to Philadelphia to join the family mortuary business, but war and influenza soon intrude. The middle daughter, Maggie, makes an impulsive choice at the height of the pandemic, and events are brought full circle in this emotionally resonant novel told in alternating voices.

Have other novels of the Great Influenza? Talk about them in the comments.

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