When I saw Emma Donoghue’s new book on the shelves, I had to pull a copy and check it out for myself.
I absolutely loved “Room” and heard good things about “Akin.”
“The Pull of the Stars” is very different from “Room” but still manages to convey a strong sense of hope and restoration.
In an unbelievable stroke of serendipity, the author became interested in the 1918 Influenza at its 100-year anniversary, just two years ago.
This precipitated an urge to research those times and what life must have been like in Dublin, Ireland, during a global pandemic that killed more people than the First World War.
Never suspecting that two years later we’d be going through something eerily similar, “The Pull of the Stars” was born.
Nurse Julia Power is almost 30, unmarried and lives with her mute brother, who was injured during The Great War.
She lives a quiet life, it seems she has no other family than the brother, and her days are filled with long hours of working at a horribly understaffed hospital then home to eat and sleep.
The hospital is in bad shape, trying to treat patients with the flu (or grippe, as it was sometimes called) while caring for maternity patients as well.
The book only spans three days, but there is so much to tell in those few days that the story whips by in a storm of tragedy and hope.
Most of the book is set in one small room. Julia and the nuns who work with her are in charge of pregnant women who have the flu.
These women are often hours or days away from delivery and are struggling to breathe because of the influenza’s hold on their lungs.
The first day we join Julia, she is put in charge of her little room because one of the nuns has come down with the grippe, and no one else is available to help out.
One worker manages to find a young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, who has a questionable background.
Only three beds are able to be pushed into the room, and with the level of illness of the women, Julia and Bridie are constantly fetching cold packs, hot pads, poultices and clean linens.
Because the majority of patients at this hospital are quite poor, many of them die.
Even the ones who live, and have babies who live, are destined for troubling times once they go back home.
Donoghue is fantastic at putting the reader in the story’s time and place, and it’s easy to feel frustrated by the lack of knowledge about treating viruses and the disrespect given to the poor of the city.
During this time, people believed that class and fate were genetic and passed from parent to child, so doctors actually dismissed the babies of the poor working class from the minute they are born.
Treatment and assistance is minimal. There is some description of the political and religious basis of these philosophies in the book, but the overriding mood is one of hope during desperation.
Interestingly, signs are posted on buses and street corners reminding the public to wash their hands, cover their cough and wear masks.
Because this fiction is based on actual facts, it was startling how a century later, humanity is reminded of the same basic principles as we deal with COVID-19.
During one section, Julia observes, “Here we are in the golden age of medicine making such great strides against rabies, typhoid fever, diphtheria and a common or garden influenza is beating us hollow.”
In all of the chaos of Julia’s room of pregnant sufferers, a new doctor at the hospital is announced.
Dr. Kathleen Lynn was an actual doctor during these times, and the author was intrigued by her story enough to include her in this one.
Apparently, Dr. Lynn was a vice president in the Irish rebel group, Sinn Fein, and was arrested and imprisoned after the particularly violent Easter Uprising in 1916.
Still wanted for questioning by the police, Dr. Lynn hides in an attic room of the hospital in between treating the poorest of patients.
In this tiny ward, these three women change each other’s lives in the most wondrous ways.
As usual, Donoghue’s fictional story is impeccably written, and the characters are so well fleshed out that the reader instantly feels as if they’ve met them.
Although not traditionally action-filled, the plot is so determined and intense that it certainly kept me riveted until the end.
This would make a fantastic title for book clubs, as there is much to talk about after reading. Reserve your copy now, and enjoy our curbside pickup service!