By Leslie Lindsay
Pregnant women quarantined in a Dublin hospital during the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
Historical Fiction Spotlight
Barnes & Noble Book Club choice for August
Reader’s Digest Book Club Pick
Australian Women’s Weekly Book Club Pick
Oprah Magazine Best Book of Summer 2020
Chapters Indigo Best Book of 2020
AudioFile Earphones award for the unabridged edition
I’m always alert to the work of the the lovely and talented Emma Donoghue, especially since I fell in love with her disturbingly good, ROOM.
The Pull of the Stars (New York: Little Brown; July 2020), seemed to be vying for my attention, whispering, “Read me, read me,” when I came across this historical fiction set in 1918 Dublin. For three days, we are midwives in a maternity ward at the height of the Great Flu. There’s work, and risk and a claustrophobic sense of the world browning at the edges; and yes, it has so many parallels with today’s pandemic.
In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new flu are quarantined. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney. In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other’s lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.
THE PULL OF THE STARS is Donoghue’s thirteenth novel (and seventeenth book of fiction), she is also a playwright. As a former R.N. myself, I was amazed and awed at the obvious medical research Donoghue must have done to pull off such an effortless and sustaining read, teaching me many things about historical medicine and midwifery. The last bit had an unexpected turn that I didn’t see coming at all, and almost felt oddly tacked-on, without set-up, but others may feel differently. THE PULL OF THE STARS does end on a slightly devastating but equally hopeful note.
A personal note from Emma Donoghue:
I began this novel in October 2018, inspired by the centenary of the Great Flu of 1918-19, and I delivered the final draft to my publishers in March 2020, two days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. As soon as I began researching the Great Flu, one fact that leapt out at me was that women before, during and for weeks after birth were particularly vulnerable to catching and suffering terrible complications from that virus. I’ve put into this story some of the labor dramas of women I know (and one of my own), and all my gratitude to frontline health workers who see us through our most frightening and transformative experiences. I could have set The Pull of the Stars anywhere, but I went for my home town of Dublin partly because Ireland was going through such a fascinating political metamorphosis in those years, and because I wanted to reckon with my country’s complicated history of carers, institutions and motherhood.
“A visceral, harrowing, and revelatory vision of life, death, and love in a time of pandemic. This novel is stunning.”
– Emily St John Mandel
Worn down to the bone. Mother of five by the age of twenty-four, an underfed daughter of underfed generations, …
Always on their feet, these Dublin mothers … living off the scraps left on plates and gallons of weak black tea. The slums in which they somehow managed to stay alive were as pertinent as pulse or respiratory rate, it seemed to me, but only medical observations were permitted on a chart. So instead of poverty, I’d write malnourishment or debility. As code for too many pregnancies, I might put anaemia, … low spirits, … torn cervix, or uterine prolapse.
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagram. FUN FACT: the pocket watch in this image is a family heirloom from IRELAND, c ~1875.
For more information, to connect with Emma Donoghue via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE PULL OF THE STARS, please visit:
THE PULL OF THE STARS reminded me of the PBS/BBC period drama CALL THE MIDWIFE, but also the work of Christina Baker Kline, particularly her new historical fiction (featured later this month), THE EXILES. But in also of Donoghue’s earlier work, THE WONDER, featuring Catholicism and a similar time period and setting. In terms of historical medical novels, you might also like the work of Sara Donati.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Born in Dublin, Ireland, in October 1969, Emma Donoghue is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue (the literary critic). She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one eye-opening year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin (unfortunately, without learning to actually speak French). Emma moved to England, and in 1997 received her PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. From the age of 23, she has earned her living as a writer, and have been lucky enough to never have an ‘honest job’ since she was “sacked after a single summer month as a chambermaid.” After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with Chris Roulston and son Finn and daughter Una.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir, about growing up with a mentally ill interior decorator mother and her devolve into psychosis. Leslie’s writing & prose poetry has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, Coffin Bell Journal, and others. Her cover art was featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available late this summer. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
Querying MODEL HOME: Motherhood & Madness a Daughter’s Memoir. Available soon: 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA from Woodbine House.
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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website on 8.29.20. Historical image of women making face masks retrieved from Guardian article on 8.29.20. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagram]