This historical fiction novel takes place in in 1918, when the world was stricken with the great influenza known as “The Spanish Flu.” Some 675,000 Americans died from it, with the hardest-hit city being Philadelphia, where this story is set. Thirty percent of Philadelphia residents contracted the flu, and more than 12,000 of them died in a short period of time.
The city was hit so hard for two main reasons. One was that there were many troops stationed there, with soldiers and sailors who had contracted the disease while abroad fighting World War I bringing it back to the cramped naval bases and military quarters. Second, against the advise of medical workers, the city sponsored a huge parade on September 28, 1918 to raise bonds for the war and to boost morale. More than 200,000 people turned out. The germs spread like wildfire.
This novel tells the story of Pauline and Thomas Bright, who moved at the beginning of 1918 from a small town in Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. Tom’s Uncle Fred had offered him a job as an undertaker in his mortuary business, with the prospect of inheriting it when his uncle was gone.
The story is told from four points of view: that of Pauline, and of each of her three daughters: Evie – 15, Maggie – 12, and Willa, 6. There was also a new baby brother, Henry, but he died just recently from a defective heart. The family was of course deeply affected by the loss of the little boy.
Pauline has been preoccupied with death since Henry died. Now she feels Death’s silent presence by her side almost like a companion (in a way reminiscent of The Book Thief). She feels Death hovering over her. She constantly muses on the nature of Death, and why some are taken and some are not, and comes to conclude: “I am sure now that Death is not the enemy….” Death “spreads its reach with the tender embrace of an angel, not the talons of a demon.” She muses: “We are like butterflies, delicate and wonderful here on earth for only a brilliant moment and then away we fly. Death is appointed to merely close the door to our suffering and open wide the gate to Paradise.”
But the real focus of the story is Maggie. It does seem as if her voice sounds much older than a 12-year-old. But if you overlook that and just follow the plot, the story rapidly becomes more engrossing.
The family moves in with Uncle Fred, above the Bright Funeral Home, and they take on new roles. Tom is an undertaker now, and Pauline helps with the cosmetic work on the bodies. Maggie makes friends with the two boys across the street – Charlie, who is 16 and “simpleminded” and Jamie, 21, who is getting ready to leave for Fort Meade to join the war. Maggie befriends Charlie, and develops a crush on Jamie. She also begs to help her mother prepare the bodies.
Before long, Tom, 36, is also called up to serve in a field hospital to help with the influenza cases that been inundating military camps. And then the big parade is held to raise liberty bonds, and the civilians are struck down by the flu as well. Some seven thousand died in just 11 days. The city morgue gets too full for all the bodies, and the mortuary cannot keep up.
Maggie accompanies Pauline to bring soup to the afflicted, and while Pauline is inside a house, Maggie finds an abandoned baby and rescues him. They bring him home, with Maggie convinced he is their compensation for Henry. Meanwhile, Willa contracts the flu and Pauline must stay by her side constantly. Maggie and Evie take care of the new baby they call Alex. Evie knows Maggie is not telling the whole truth about the baby, but they both get too involved in caring for it.
Before long, the flu affects the Bright family as well, and once again, all of them have to take on new roles.
Then the story picks up seven years later, in 1925, and we learn what happened to all the characters who made it through that horrible year in 1918 of loss and suffering.
Discussion: The author does an excellent job limning the impact the flu had on the lives of Philadelphians – even the children, who, when the schools reopened, had to face finding out which of their teachers and classmates had died. She also highlights the ways in which the survivors of both the war and flu may not have always had visible wounds, but no one had survived the year unscathed.
The story focuses on survival in the face of tragedy and loss, and the tenacity of the human spirit. It also has an almost religious bent, although it is Death, rather than God, that plays a major role.
Evaluation: This engrossing story is deeply affecting, and will also help shed light on an era that is not well-known in U.S. history.
Published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018