Birth and death in the midst of a pandemic

Julia Power, the narrator of The Pull of the Stars (2020) by Emma Donoghue, is a young maternity nurse in 1918 Dublin. World War I rages on throughout Europe, while the so-called Spanish Influenza stalks prey much closer to home. Nurse Power knows all too much about both plagues: More and more of the hospital staff are succumbing to the flu, while at home her brother Tim, her only surviving relative, has been mute since returning from the war front.

But wasn’t it the whole world’s war now? Hadn’t we caught it from each other, as helpless against it as against other infections? No way to keep one’s distance; no island to hide on. Like the poor, maybe, the war would always be with us. Across the world, one lasting state of noise and terror under the bone man’s reign.

Nursing duties in the tiny makeshift maternity ward meant to segregate flu-stricken expectant mothers from their healthy counterparts have fallen almost entirely on Nurse Julia. She’s been promised a visit from a new doctor soon, but meanwhile does the best she can to care for her four patients, all in various stages of pregnancy and illness. One of the nuns who run the hospital responds to her pleas for more help by bringing her Bridie, a young woman who lives in the convent after being raised in its orphanage. Julia is dubious about the arrangement, but she finds the unschooled Bridie to be a bright and curious assistant eager to make herself useful.

The women in Julia’s charge come from a range of economic strata, but most are grindingly poor, undernourished, dirty, and ignorant of the natural processes underway in their bodies. When one of them dies while giving birth, it’s Nurse Power who, in the absence of a physician, must fill out the death certificate:

If I’d been the one to write the concluding line in the regulation tiny lettering that filled both sides of her sheet, I’d have been tempted to put ‘Worn down to the bone’. Mother of five by the age of twenty-four, an underfed daughter of underfed generations, white as paper, red-rimmed eyes, flat bosom, fallen arches, twig limbs with veins that were tangles of blue twine. Eileen Devine had walked along a cliff edge all her adult life, and this flu had only tipped her over.

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between that long-ago pandemic and the one that swept the same globe a little more than 100 years later. Julia observes the same tendencies in people to deny the severity of the disease, to refuse to wear masks, to prioritize themselves over their fellow citizens, that we’ve all witnessed over the past year. It’s small comfort to know the world hasn’t necessarily become more selfish over the past century, and even less comfort to realize it certainly hasn’t become more compassionate. But even in the midst of so much death, Julia draws strength from her young protégé and clings to, if not a sense of optimism at least a refusal to succumb to despair.

As far as I could tell, the whole world was a machine grinding to a halt. Across the globe, in hundreds of languages, signs were going up urging people to cover their coughs. We had it no worse here than anywhere else; self-pity was as useless as panic.

This book is not for the squeamish. If you’ve seen any episodes of Call the Midwife on the BBC or PBS, you know that pregnancy and poverty can be dirty, bloody, gruesome things. Donoghue spares no details in showing her readers the reality behind the process that generates the cute little tykes in all those cheerful diaper commercials. But if you can look reality square in the eye without a soft-focus filter, your reward will be a story that seeks light in the darkness that surrounds us all.

Published by Julia

I learned to read before I started kindergarten, and I haven't stopped yet.

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