Little, Brown, 304 pages, $28
This is not a mystery.
Break my heart, why don’t you, Emma Donoghue from Ireland! “The Pull of the Stars” may be what you need at this extraordinary moment in time in our 2020 world. The book was rushed to publication a mere four months after Donoghue presented her first draft to her publishers. And that’s because of her subject matter.
“Dublin, 1918” are the first words on the flyleaf. World War I. Influenza. The mighty confluence of two deadly events. In 2020, we have influenza and the election from hell. I think we all can relate to the events portrayed in “The Pull of the Stars.”
If you are a fan of “Call the Midwife,” you might possibly like this book. It’s a bit grimmer than the TV show, but still a sympathetic look at mothers giving birth. There isn’t as much heart-warming, happy ending stuff in the book as in the series, but both highlight how giving birth is messy, fraught, and often glorious, even under the worst of circumstances.
Nurse Julia Powell has been elevated to the head nurse of her little room of pregnant women with the flu. That’s because medical staff are dropping right and left, themselves victims of the virus. The ones who remain are exhausted and spread thinly. In addition to grueling hours, Julia has a brother just returned from war, Tim. Tim is physically intact, thank goodness, but he is mute. It is not a physiological muteness. It is Tim’s brain shutting down that little part of him, because who knows what might come spewing out were he to begin to talk. He is not a big character in the book, but he carries his disability as a symbol for all the other soldiers returned from combat.
The hospital where Julia works has all kinds of cases, including a large “men’s fever” ward, but it is the little world where Julia helps the pregnant women who are ill that is the location of this book. If you are guessing the mortality rate might be higher there than on the regular maternity ward, you would be right. So there is sadness tipped into the mix. But with each life, death, birth, Donoghue tells us a little bit about what was going on in Ireland at the time. She also tells us a lot about humanity.
Bridie Sweeney is a volunteer. She is about twenty-two years old and looks small and poor. She doesn’t know her true age, and the story of that is eventually told. Bridie has the soul and personality of someone much larger. Sister Luke is the night nurse, and her character exists as a representative of the old ways of both nursing and the Catholic Church. Dr. Lynn is a Sinn Féin fighter who was imprisoned in England but released back to Ireland. She is despised by some of the others in the hospital, but it turns out she is a very good doctor.
Remarkably, the action takes place within just three days. After all is done, it will seem such a short period of time for so much to have happened.
Here is the strength of Donoghue as a writer in some of the personal touches she adds: Tim has a tame magpie; Julia memorializes the deaths on her shift by scratching a mark on the back of a silver watch; Bridie luxuriates in the hand lotion she is allowed to use at the hospital, while Julia can’t abide the smell; Groyne, an orderly who had been in the war, sings rude songs and talks to the corpses he is tasked with taking to the morgue. There is so much life bursting from Donoghue’s pages, even as the cacaphony of death tries to drown it out.
It’s a lovely book. It doesn’t seem as though it was rushed out. It’s a panacea — at least temporarily. It bears witness to how people of all walks of life are equal under Death's law. It tasks us with remembering love is precious, all the more so if it is fleeting.