After reading a number of slow, reflective reads lately, I needed something a bit easier and faster. The Pull of the Stars fit the bill nicely. It was easy to read, even with the rather detailed 1918 midwifery and autopsy scenes that left me gasping and wincing in sympathy!
In keeping with my current Plague Lit phase, this is a book about the 1918-19 influenza that devastated the entire world as World War One was coming to an end.
The book charts three days on the maternity/fever ward in a hospital in Dublin, Ireland, with Nurse Julia Power and her young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney. The hospital is extremely understaffed, and Nurse Power is working a room barely bigger than a cupboard with just enough space for three beds. Power has already had the fever and recovered, as is now considered immune.
Donoghue weaves in all the rumours and myths that surrounded the Spanish flu including it being a ‘miasma‘ coming off all the dead bodies from the war in France, a religious judgement about said war, the consequence of so many people travelling or ‘milling about across the globe‘, or an alignment or influence of the stars (hence the name of the book).
My reading tended to focus on the points of connection or similarity between then and now. On her way in to work, Power notices ‘so many shops shuttered now due to staff being laid low by the grippe…many of the firms that were still open looked deserted to me, on the verge of failing for lack of custom.’
There were the contrarians who didn’t like having their personal freedoms curtailed for the greater good and therefore, chose to believe that the effects of the flu were being exaggerated. There was suspicion about government propaganda and oodles of old wives tales about how best to prevent catching the flu – from using eucalyptus oil, carrying raw garlic in your pocket or around your neck, gargling brandy, eating an onion a day, carrying rosaries and other charms and amulets.
The science was not as quick as it is now, but facts about the nature of the Influenza constantly changed and evolved as more research and tests were done. As now, this added to some people’s confusion and allowed conspiracy theorists to thrive. The Spanish flu was referred to by numerous names such as the great flu, khaki flu, blue flu, black flu, the grippe, or the grip, the malady, and the war sickness.
The government propaganda signs were confusing, contradictory and often laughable.
The public is urged to stay out of public places such as cafes, theatres, cinemas and public houses. See only those persons one needs to see. Refrain from shaking hands, laughing, or chatting closely together. If one must kiss, do so through a handkerchief. Sprinkle sulphur in the shoes. If in doubt, don’t stir out.
The Pull of the Stars was a great holiday read (I read it in two days lying on the beach). I learnt probably more than I ever need to know about certain birthing matters and I was curious to learn about the colour phases of the flu’s development – from red to brown, to blue, to black, that Donoghue used to create her chapter headings. Overall, an engaging read with plenty of parallels to our times.
A personal note: I began this novel in October 2018, inspired by the centenary of the Great Flu of 1918-19, and I delivered the final draft to my publishers in March 2020, two days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. In researching the Great Flu, one fact that leapt out at me was that women before, during and for weeks after birth were particularly vulnerable to catching and suffering terrible complications from that virus. I’ve put into this story some of the labour dramas of women I know (and one of my own), and all my gratitude to frontline health workers who see us through our most frightening and transformative experiences. I could have set The Pull of the Stars anywhere, but I went for my home town of Dublin partly because Ireland was going through such a fascinating political metamorphosis in those years, and because I wanted to reckon with my country’s complicated history of carers, institutions and motherhood.
- Dr Kathleen Lynn (a secondary but memorable character) was a real life rebel doctor whose worked focused on the well being of infants and their mothers.
- Bridie’s back story, as well as that of one of the young mum’s in the ward with Nurse Power, were based on real life events as told to the 2009 Ryan Commission and discussed in this article here.
Other Books by Donoghue:
Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads:
- The Plague | Albert Camus
- The Stand | Stephen King
- Oryx and Crake | Margaret Atwood
- Year of Wonders | Geraldine Brooks
- Journal of a Plague Year | Daniel Defoe
- A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction)
- Intimations | Zadie Smith (non-fiction)
- Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter
- Station Eleven | Emily St John Mandel
- Blindness | José Saramago
- The Last Man | Mary Shelley
- The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World | Steven Johnson (non-fiction)
- Nemesis | Philip Roth
- Love in the Time of Cholera | Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Years of Rice and Salt | Kim Stanley Robinson
- The Dog Stars | Peter Heller
- The Children’s Hospital | Chris Adrian
- Severance | Ling Ma
- The White Plague | Frank Herbert
- The Passage | Justin Cronin