Best-selling author Emma Donoghue’s newest novel The Pull of the Stars is a timely commentary on history repeating itself. The story takes place during the Spanish Flu pandemic in the final days of World War I. Julia Power is a twenty-nine-year-old nurse who recovered from a relatively mild dose of the potentially fatal disease so she is considered immune and able to return to her work at a major Dublin hospital where she treats high-risk expectant mothers who are suffering from the Spanish Flu. She lives in a small cottage with her younger brother who returned from the war in France with severe shell shock. His injuries are not visible but he is unable to speak and tends to their garden and home as best he can which frees Julia to work long hours.
As in her earlier book, Room, which was made into an Oscar-winning movie, Donoghue demonstrates her skills as a master of minutiae. The story takes place over three days in a small room of the hospital with three cots set aside for expectant mothers with the Spanish flu. She focuses her narrative on precise details that give the reader a clear view of the setting, clothing, furnishings, and even the smells of her story. Julia works long hours at the hospital to provide compassionate care to her pregnant patients, often in conflict with the rules and procedures dictated by the Catholic nuns who oversee patient care.
Even though the story is set in the first week of November 1918, the challenges of dealing with a pandemic are eerily similar to the challenges of COVID-19 we are facing today. Everyone is considered a carrier. The public has a horror of being exposed to anyone who coughs or appears unwell. Hospitals are struggling not only with shortages of medical supplies but also with staff shortages because so many hospital workers are off sick. They are overworked and forced to cope with constant death, unable to stop the disease.
If you’re a fan of Call The Midwife on PBS you’ll particularly enjoy reading The Pull of the Stars as it’s a similar kind of period drama. We learn more than we probably need to know about what can and does go wrong during pregnancy and childbirth one hundred years ago. Donnelly’s research is extensive and she spares no details.
Early in the story, Julia Power is joined by Bridie Sweeney, a twenty-something young woman from a local convent who volunteers to help with bedpans, cleaning up, running errands, and generally assisting the nurse any way she can. Through conversations between Julia and Bridie, we learn how unfair and inhumane the orphanages and homes for unwed mothers were in Ireland not that long ago.
The Catholic Church treated its young mothers and children as slaves, charged outsiders for their services, and bound them to what amounted to prison terms for their perceived moral sins. Julia is horrified to learn about the injustices. We’re also introduced to Dr. Lynn, a female doctor who had been imprisoned for her role in promoting Irish independence. The Dr. Lynn character in the book is based on a real person who spent her life working for improved health care for poor women in Ireland.
The Pull of the Stars is a fast read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We learn so much about women’s health care and women’s rights one hundred years ago which gives us much to be thankful for today. This book is also a condemnation of the Catholic Church in Ireland, even though we’re viewing it through a modern lens. I must admit I found it a bit distracting to sort out dialogue because the author doesn’t use quotation marks. Many times, I would have to go back a sentence or two to figure out if the author or the character was speaking. If this is the newest trend in writing . . . stop it. I don’t like it. There were also times I wondered where the story was going, but hang in, it’s worth the wait.
Pandemics occur with regularity throughout history and each generation learns from the experience and creates ways of coping. Fortunately, we are no longer eating onions or carrying garlic in our pockets to ward off disease, but some things like wearing masks, shortages of medical supplies, and threats to health care workers never change. New pandemics present new challenges and we will overcome.
If you cannot get The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue at your local bookstore or library, click on the image of the book cover to order from Amazon. Disclosure: If you order from this link, I may receive a teeny tiny commission (84¢ to be exact). Thanks for your support.