The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue: A review

 

The Pull of the Stars. Or as the Italians say la influenza delle stelle

Influenza. The time is late October, early November 1918. The world is suffering through the influenza pandemic that would eventually kill an estimated 3 to 6 percent of the human race, more than died in World War I. That Great War is winding down and soon an Armistice will silence the guns. But that other war, the one against the pandemic, is heating up. The combatants in that war are medical personnel like Julia Power, a 29-year-old soon to be 30-year-old midwife working at a crowded and understaffed Dublin hospital. Julia is unmarried and shares a house with her younger brother who came back from the war shell-shocked and mute. He has not spoken since his return, but, other than that, he functions well in caring for the house and raising some vegetables for their table while his sister works.

The staff shortages at the hospital have left Julia as the only nurse on duty overnight in the "fever/maternity" ward, a makeshift section in one room with three beds designated for influenza patients who are pregnant. Almost all the action of this novel takes place in that claustrophobic room as Julia struggles to care for her patients using the few treatments available, which mostly consist of whisky and chloroform.

Doctors are scarce and only called on in the direst need, but the administrators of the hospital, in their desperation, at least have the good sense to call in Dr. Kathleen Lynn, a rare female doctor in the city. She is also a wanted criminal, hunted by the Dublin police for her role in Sinn Fein's 1916 uprising. Dr. Lynn is actually a historical figure and a brilliant doctor.

In her time of greatest need, Julia also receives another helper, a young volunteer named Bridie Sweeney. Bridie has led a life of poverty and abuse, beginning with her placement in one of Ireland's notorious orphanages. They were so neglectful of her well-being that she didn't even know when her birthday was. She thought she was around twenty-two. But a life that could have turned her cynical and brutal had instead given her a tender and caring nature and although she had no medical knowledge, she was a quick learner and an eager worker. She quickly made herself indispensable to Julia.

Together, these three very different but capable women deal with one crisis after another; things such as life-threatening hemorrhages, multiple premature labors (an apparent side effect of that influenza strain), sudden skyrocketing fevers, convulsions, and a rapid case of influenza that progresses to cyanosis in a few hours. During all this, there are also babies to deliver and try to keep alive. A good day in the ward is when no one dies. Those days are rare.

In focusing so narrowly on this one room and its occupants, the patients and their carers, Donoghue is able to present an exceptional amount of detail about the lives of these women. The patients who labor and deliver there have mostly led lives that have been ruled by poverty, misogyny, and abuse. The women are expected to be constantly pregnant. There was apparently a common saying that, "She doesn't love him unless she gives him 12." By the time these women are in their mid-twenties, their bodies are beset by all the stresses that such constant bearing produces. It is harrowing to read about.

Dr. Lynn at one point criticizes the government for the high rates of poverty and infant mortality. Julia responds that she doesn't have time for politics. To which Dr. Lynn replies, "Oh, but everything's politics, don't you know?"

As we all try to live through our current pandemic which has so many parallels to that one a hundred years ago, I have to agree with Dr. Lynn. Still today the burden of the disease falls most heavily on groups that have been mistreated and neglected by society and by virtue of that are perhaps least well-equipped to fight it off. The more things change the more they remain the same.

Emma Donoghue's account of the 1918 pandemic is brilliantly written and kept me turning those pages, wanting to know what would happen next. The parallels between that time and 2020 really are uncanny.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. This sounds good. Interest in the 1918 pandemic had risen since Covid. I suspect that we will see a few novels popping up on the subject.

    It is good that the book focuses on nurses. They usually bear the brunt of these pandemics.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Comme tu dis, plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sound like a powerful read and very well written!

    I will have to read The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue at another time after the current pandemic calms down... Hearing about the continued spikes in COVID-19 cases on the news around the nation, the rise in COVID-19 deaths and our hospitals being filled to capacity due to COVID-19 has me very concerned/stressed out as to where we are headed when it's only the start of the fall/winter season... So, reading anything else about any sort of pandemic is off the plate for me at this time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The thing I find most stressful about this pandemic is our federal government's COMPLETE failure to deal with it, but at least help is on the way in that regard. In reading this book, I was not surprised to see that there were clear parallels between the Irish government of that time and our own government.

      Delete
  4. I can well imagine how well Emma Donoghue does with this topic. I will be reading it soon. Great review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She does seem to excel in presenting tightly focused and even claustrophobic stories that have wider significance.

      Delete
  5. Yes I read & reviewed this one in Sept. and felt as you did that it was well researched & the author puts you into the circumstances so well. It's quite a medical novel and delivers those more rudimentary medical days ... very vividly. It's pretty dark ... even more so than today's pandemic. I like how you point out the burden is falling on groups in society more neglected ... ugh sad.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is indeed a dark story but not without its points of light.

      Delete
  6. Sounds like something I would want to read. I've read accounts, by a blogger I follow who lives in Alberta, taken from her grandmother's diary. The grandmother (or maybe it was great grandmother) was pressed into service as a healer/midwife in her rural Alberta community during the flu pandemic (because she survived it early on herself and thereafter was apparently immune) and wrote at length about the high mortality of pregnant women who did not survive labor due to the flu. So I was aware of one of the issues this book brings out. I need to go back and read those posts and I may well look into this book, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's interesting. This book seemed very well researched. The high mortality rate among pregnant women, at least in Ireland, was apparently related to the fact of the extreme stresses on their bodies by constant child-bearing and the effects of poverty and often the physical abuse they received. Women were not valued by society at large and we know from present-day research that that leads to all kinds of problems that emanate from an unjust society. We see those consequences in the present pandemic as well when groups who have been held back by prejudice and injustice again bear the brunt of the pain.

      Delete
  7. I enjoyed this book very much, though I felt the end was a bit rushed (probably just me). The characters were fascinating and the plot was riveting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, it wasn't just you; it did feel a bit rushed and I hated to leave those characters in whom I had become so invested.

      Delete
  8. Wow, I couldn't take my eyes off of this review! Imagine how I would feel about this book... This sounds so intriguing. Adding it to my TBR! Thanks for the review.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Poetry Sunday: Excerpt from The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

Open Season (Joe Pickett #1) by C.J. Box - A review

Poetry Sunday: Invitation by Mary Oliver