The Covid-19 pandemic might be the pandemic we live in today, but it is not the first pandemic the world has seen. In this blog post, NOPL’s Sub-Librarian Sue Cox recommends pandemic novels from another time. These books tell the unforgettable stories of life, family, and a person’s will to live during a pandemic.
By Sue Cox
Imagine quarantine and a pandemic without any Zoom calls, without Netflix binges, and without Uber deliveries. That was the experience during the last pandemic, in 1917-1918. Some contemporary novelists have used that tragedy as the backdrop to wonderful historical fiction.
I found three novels that I particularly enjoyed and want to recommend. The first one is Myla Goldberg’s Wickett’s Remedy. Lydia Kilkenny is the daughter of Irish immigrants living in Boston in the early 1900s and she gets a job as a “shopgirl” selling men’s shirts at an upscale department store. While she is working there she attracts the attention of Henry Wickett, a medical student from a Boston Brahmin family. He begins to court her and they are married. It isn’t long before Boston is overwhelmed with World War I and also with the Pandemic. Lydia volunteers as an assistant nurse and helps with a project that uses prisoners to develop vaccines. She discovers nursing is the profession she is meant to fulfill and also suffers a horrible flu-related tragedy close to home. The novel goes back and forth in time from 1918 to the present day, so the reader can see the final outcomes of some of the characters.
Another recent novel tells the story of the effects of the Pandemic on caregivers. Emma Donoghue is a Man Booker award finalist whose recent novel The Pull of the Stars is set in a maternity ward in Ireland during the height of their pandemic. Ms. Donoghue was inspired to write about the Pandemic in 2018 and completed the story in early 2020. The beleaguered staff in the maternity ward is coping with the combined effects of three tragedies, World War I, the flu, and the 1916 Irish uprising. The three main characters are a nurse-midwife, a nurse’s aide, and a doctor. The doctor, Kathleen Lynn, is based on a real historical character. Dr. Lynn took part in the Irish uprising and was jailed by the British. All three women fight death against a backdrop of poverty, prejudice, and trauma.
In Ellen Marie Wiseman’s The Orphan Collector 13-year-old Pia Lange is a German immigrant living with her mother and siblings in a crowded Philadelphia tenement. Her father enlisted in the Army to protect his family from the rampant anti-immigrant sentiment overtaking the country. A huge celebration meant to mark the end of the war sparks a horrible outbreak of influenza. Pia’s whole family falls ill. When they run out of food Pia leaves her baby brothers unattended to search for help and when she returns they are not there anymore. It takes years before she is able to find her brothers and her family’s fate collides with that of other victims of the flu.
If you are interested in a straightforward history of the pandemic, I would definitely recommend John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. Barry discusses the science involved in the outbreak, along with descriptions of the many fascinating people who worked to study it and alleviate it. Bill Gates recommended it in a news story in early 2020. Barry includes politicians as well as military leaders and regular citizens, adding details that emphasize the horror people lived through.
All these books are available in the Onondaga County Public Library system.