The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
In an overcrowded hospital in the heart of Dublin during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, Nurse Julia Power works long hours in the “fever/maternity” ward, where women who have succumbed to the flu and are also pregnant are sent.
There aren’t enough doctors and nurses to go around, and Julia is assigned a volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, to help out. Bridie is a ward of the nearby Catholic orphanage; a bright young woman who Julia takes an instant liking to and trusts to help with the care of the women in her charge even though Bridie has no medical experience.
The doctor on duty is Dr. Kathleen Lynn, intelligent and outspoken, and also rumored to be wanted by the authorities for her role in Sinn Fein’s 1916 uprising. Over the course of three days, the three women deal with multiple medical crises, fighting to save lives and bring newborn lives into the world.
Reading Emma Donoghue’s latest fiction, The Pull of the Stars, during a pandemic occurring more than 100 years later was an encouraging experience, as our medical technology and scientific understanding of how viruses spread are so vastly improved.
Many events in the novel were also eerily familiar, lending to the feeling that history is repeating itself. On her way to work, nurse Julia passes public announcements that discourage shaking hands and chatting closely together, urge people to stay out of public places, and pronounce that “if one must kiss, do so through a handkerchief.”
Handwritten “Have Run Out of Carbolic” signs are posted in the druggist’s window, similar to current-day shortages of hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol, and the shackled gates of a school post the notice “CLOSED FOR FORESEEABLE FUTURE BY ORDER OF BOARD OF HEALTH.”
Meanwhile, the government touts false cures (“sprinkle sulphur in the shoes”) and proclaims on signs posted right outside the overrun hospital that all is well and the epidemic is in decline. Dr. Lynn has no patience for the government’s response, and tells Julia, “As for the authorities, I believe the pandemic will have run its course before they’ve agreed on any but the most feeble action. Recommending onions and eucalyptus oil! Like sending beetles to stop a steamroller.”
Although the plot is focused on the close quarters and frenetic activity of the maternity ward, giving the book a page-turner thriller feel, Donoghue isn’t averse to pondering more existential questions about why pandemics occur in the first place.
Mourning the death of a patient due to influenza complications after childbirth, Dr. Lynn suggests to Julia that “we could always blame the stars,” pointing out that influenza delle stelle means “the influence of the stars” as Medieval Italians thought that the sickness showed the heavens were governing our fates.
Julia, who became a nurse and supports herself and her war-crippled brother despite odds against such success, tells Bridie, “I’d never believe the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything was written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, and our lives were the writing.”
The Pull of the Stars will appeal to readers of historical fiction and Call the Midwife enthusiasts, and those in the health profession or interested in medicine will find the details about 1918 medical procedures of interest. It is also a heartwarming story of three women supporting each other, caring for other women, and making the best of a bad situation—ultimately a feel-good story for a similar dark time in history.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at Whatcom County Library System. Visit https://www.wcls.org to place holds on library materials and learn about curbside and in-library holds pickup. Whatcom County libraries are now open to the public with modified services, limited hours and entry requirements for in-person visits in accordance with Washington state’s Safe Start plan. Library staff encourage community members to plan their visit by calling their local library or visiting https://www.wcls.org/info for branch-specific service details.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, November 18, 2020.)