‘The Pull of the Stars’ provides solace with story of 1918 flu pandemic

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

It’s human nature to look for media that we can relate to, especially in stressful times like the ones we’re living in now. Because of this, creators of all different art forms have produced quarantine-inspired pieces, musings on life in the pandemic and stories about people experiencing these unprecedented times. For instance, in August 2020, a miniseries called “Love in the Time of Corona” came out on Freeform. The show follows several different households navigating quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic and delves into the challenges it poses to their relationships. I’m sure the series is interesting, but I knew that I would not be watching it from the moment I first found out about it—it felt a little too real.

I instead picked up Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Inventory,” which I had read last spring. The story follows a woman living through an imagined future pandemic. I had to put the book down, though, because it filled me with such an immediate sense of dread, even though I had started rereading it precisely because of its connections to COVID. It turns out that reading about the current moment and reading about an imagined future where we’re still isolated from one another are not comforting. However, many of us still seek solace in stories about people in similar situations to our own. I experienced this when I read “The Pull of the Stars.”

“The Pull of the Stars” by Emma Donoghue is about the 1918 flu pandemic. Set in Ireland, the book follows nurse Julia Power as she oversees a special hospital ward for women who are both pregnant and sick with the flu. Though it takes place over a short period of time, every moment that Julia spends caring for her patients is a matter of life and death. Donoghue also delves into the social inequalities that are affecting patients, healthcare workers and the greater Dublin community.

Along the way, Julia meets Bridie Sweeney, a hospital volunteer to whom she is immediately drawn. The two women work alongside each other and form one of the central relationships of the novel. As they care for their patients, their friendship develops and they confront their troubled pasts amid the background of their shared work.

Many elements of the characters’ experiences are unsurprisingly very relevant today, such as the signs issued by authorities urging the public not to gather with people outside their households. At one point, Julia admits, “I was having trouble foreseeing any future. How would we ever get back to normal after the pandemic?”

I will admit that as I was reading, I found some of the parallels to the present situation to be a little heavy-handed. Obviously the book is historically accurate, but it clearly felt like it had been written to point out the connections between the flu pandemic and the current pandemic. But after reading the novel, I discovered that Emma Donoghue started writing it in 2018, well before COVID-19 was first documented, and finished in March 2020. Its publication was fast-tracked once it became clear just how relevant it was.

I don’t know if I can characterize this as a comfort read—it takes place in the middle of a pandemic, after all. The characters face serious, high-stakes issues, and not all of them survive. At the same time, there are many hopeful notes; the relationships that people build with each other, whether they are friendships, romances or chosen families, are incredibly strong and valuable. And while many of the societal problems apparent in the book still exist today, it is striking to be reminded of how far we’ve come in terms of technology and modern medicine. 

If you crave literature that reminds you of the current moment but don’t want to read another COVID story, I recommend “The Pull of the Stars.” As Donoghue’s characters do, you might find solace in the fact that the very modern-seeming problems we’re facing are not new: “The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, the doctor told her. Or a stalemate, at the least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life.”

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