The award-winning author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and A Bridge Across the Ocean presents a tale set in 1918 Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic and traces the experiences of a family reeling from the losses of loved ones and changes in their adopted city, a situation that is further shaped by their decision to take in an orphaned infant.
Susan Meissner is a former managing editor of a weekly newspaper and an award-winning columnist. She is the award-winning author of A Bridge Across the Ocean, Secrets of a Charmed Life, A Fall of Marigolds, and Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, among other novels.
Pauline Bright encourages her husband to finally accept his uncle's offer to share in his Philadelphia mortuary business. Since the death of their youngest child, her grief has turned into a peculiar relationship with death, part sympathy, part curiosity, part heavy acceptance. Their three daughters adjust to city life. Evelyn attends a prestigious school that prepares her for a career in medicine, young Willa is fascinated by their big house, and middle child Maggie befriends their neighbors, the Sutcliffs. When Jamie Sutcliff's draft number comes up, the Brights think they are as close as they'll get to the troubles plaguing Europe. But it is 1918, and soon the Spanish flu has swept the city. On the hundredth anniversary of the pandemic, this novel infuses remembrances with emotion. Meissner (A Bridge across the Ocean, 2017) uncharacteristically sticks to one time period, but the narration by the four Bright girls adds depth. A good choice for book groups who read M. L. Stedman's A Light between the Oceans (2012), another novel set in the post-WWI era in which tragedy blurs moral lines. Copyright 2017 Booklist Reviews.
In the final year of the Great War, an American family copes with the Spanish flu pandemic.The Brights, Pauline and Thomas and their daughters, Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa, relocate to better their future. Leaving Thomas' family tobacco farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, the family moves to Philadelphia, where Thomas' bachelor uncle, Fred, a mortician, has offered to teach him the undertaker's trade. Since he has no other heirs, Fred intends, in time, to bequeath his funeral business to the Brights. Pauline and the daughters narrate in turn. At the time of the move, the Brights are still reeling from the death of baby son Henry. Pauline becomes obsessed with death and insinuates herself into the mortuary business to an extent Fred never contemplated. What appears to be a slow-paced and rather morbid tale of domesticity gains momentum when Thomas volunteers to serve in the Army and leaves for basic training. Shortly thereafter, the influenza epidemic grips Philadelphia. As the de ath toll mounts, Fred's genteel funeral parlor becomes an auxiliary morgue. When Pauline and Maggie visit the slums on a charitable mission, Maggie wanders into a row house by herself and finds its occupants dead or dying except for a squalling, neglected infant boy. She and Pauline return home with the child, whom the Brights will name Alex, and inquiries as to his parentage are soon abandoned in light of the sheer number of orphaned children already taxing city authorities. Nevertheless, Maggie keeps the location where she found Alex a secret and lies about the fact that the boy's sister was still alive when Maggie rescued him. Pauline is torn between her guilt over this impulsive adoption and her desire to fill the void left by Henry's death. Up to this point, the novel is a somber and unblinking appraisal of grief, calamity, and the disruptions of war. An extended denouement, set in the 1920s, lightens the mood, but at the expense of believability. Stark realism offset b y unreasonable optimism. Copyright Kirkus 2017 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Morning light shimmers on the apricot horizon as I stand at the place where my baby boy rests. Stouthearted chickadees are singing in the day, just like they have done every other winter's dawn, but when this same sun sets tonight, I will be miles away from them, and inside an unfamiliar house. There will be no reminders anywhere that Henry was ever mine. Not visible ones, anyway.
I kneel on the dead grass, brittle with icy moisture. The fabric of my skirt draws in the chilled damp, as if it is parched with thirst. The growing wetness at my knees is unhurried and easy, like a clean, slow blade. I look at the little marble slab that bears Henry's name and the carving of a sweet lamb curled up among lilies, and I'm reminded again that he was my angel child, even before he flew away to heaven.
From the moment I held my boy, glistening and new, I knew that he wasn't like the other babies I'd given birth to. He wasn't like my girls. They'd slipped out annoyed by the noise and chill and sharp edges of this world. Not Henry. He didn't cry. He didn't curl his tiny hands into fists. He didn't shout his displeasure at being pulled out of the only safe place he knew.
When the doctor placed him in my arms, Henry merely looked at me with eyes so blue they could've been sapphires. He held my gaze like he knew who I was. Knew everything about me. Like he still had the breath of eternity in his lungs.
He didn't care when I parted the folds of his blanket to look at his maleness and marvel at the pearly sheen of his skin against mine. I could scarcely believe I'd given birth to a boy after three girls and so many years since the last one. I just kept staring at Henry and he just let me.
When Thomas was let into the room, he was as astonished that we had a son as I was. The girls were, too. They followed in right after their father, even though it was the middle of the night, and we all gazed and grinned at the little man-child, the quiet lad who did not cry.
My father-in-law came over the next morning, as did Thomas's brothers and their wives, all of them smelling of dried tobacco leaves and spice. My parents came, too, and my sister, Jane, who was newly pregnant with her own child after several years of hoping and praying for a baby. They all marveled at how beautiful Henry was, how calm, how enchanting his gaze and how sweet his temperament. My mother and Thomas's sisters-in-law stared at him like I'd done the night before, amazed as I had been at how serene this baby was. They had known, too, without knowing, that something wasn't right.
The few months we had with Henry were wonder filled and happy. He did all the things a baby does that make you smile and laugh and want to kiss his downy head. When he needed something, like my breast or a clean diaper or affection, he didn't wail; he merely sighed a sweet little sound that if it were made of words would have started with "If it's not too much trouble . . ." We didn't know he didn't have the physical strength to exert himself. His perfectly formed outsides hid the too-small, too-weak heart that my body had made for him.
And yet had God asked me ahead of time if I wanted this sweet child for just shy of half a year, I still would have said yes. Even now, eight weeks after Henry's passing, and even when I hold Jane's sweet little newborn, Curtis, I would still say yes.
I don't know if Thomas feels this way, and I know the girls don't. Evelyn is still sad, Maggie is still angry, and Willa is still bewildered that Henry was taken from us. I can't say why I am none of those things anymore. What I feel inside, I'm not sure there are words to describe. I should still be sad, angry, and bewildered, but instead I feel a numbness regarding Death that I've told no one about. Not even Thomas.
I no longer fear Death, though I know that I should. I'm strangely at peace with what I used to think of as my enemy. Living seems more the taskmaster of the two, doesn't it? Life is wonderful and beautiful but oh, how hard it can be. Dying, by contrast, is easy and simple, almost gentle. But who can I tell such a thing to? No one. I am troubled by how remarkable this feeling is.
This is why I changed my mind about moving to Philadelphia. I'd said no the first time Thomas's uncle made his offer even though I could tell my husband was interested. Back then I couldn't imagine leaving this sleepy little town where I've lived all my life, couldn't imagine leaving my parents, though I've never been especially dependent on their subtle shows of affection. I didn't want to move to the city, where the war in Europe would somehow seem closer, didn't want to uproot the girls from the only home they've ever known. Didn't want to tear myself away from all that was familiar. Uncle Fred wrote again a couple months after Henry was born, and Thomas had said we needed to think carefully before turning down a second invitation.
"Uncle Fred might take his offer to one of my brothers," Thomas had told me.
I truly would have given the matter more serious thought if Henry hadn't begun his slow ascent away from us right about the same time. When my son's fragile heart finally began to number his days, nothing else mattered but holding on to him as long as we could. Thomas didn't bring up the matter again when the third letter from Uncle Fred arrived last week. My husband thinks I cannot leave this little mound of grass.
But the truth is, I have come out from under the shroud of sorrow a different person. I no longer want to stay in this place where Henry spent such a short time. I don't want Thomas shading a view of the wide horizon with hands calloused from binder leaves. I don't want the girls to end up mirroring this life of mine, in a place where nothing truly changes but the contours of your heart.
More than that, I want to know why Death seems to walk beside me like a companion now rather than prowling behind like a shadowy specter. Surely the answers await me in Uncle Fred's funeral parlor, where he readies the deceased for their journeys home. Thomas would've gone to his grave rolling cigars for other men to smoke, but now he will one day inherit Uncle Fred's mortuary business and then he won't be under the thumb of anyone.
I don't know what it is like to be the wife of an undertaker. I only know that I need to remember how it was to keep Death at a distance.
I kneel, kiss my fingertips, and brush them against the H carved into the cold stone.
And I rise from the wet ground without saying good-bye.
I will miss the curing barn in autumn, when the tobacco leaves hang from the laths like golden skirts in a wardrobe. I've always loved how in October the papery leaves smell like cedar, molasses, and tree bark. There won't be anything like them in Philadelphia. And we'll be long gone by the time October comes around again.
The curing barn is my favorite place because it's either as busy as a beehive or as still as a painting. After that first killing frost it's like the painting, so still and quiet you can forget there's a changing world outside. No one has to do anything in the curing barn in the fall except have a look-see now and then to make sure none of the tobacco leaves are getting moldy. In the fall, we're all in the rolling room. I'm twelve but I've the delicate hands of a young woman, Grandad says, so I roll a nice cigar. Evie just turned fifteen and doesn't like rolling; she'd rather be reading under the locust tree when the weather's nice, but she likes to buy books with the money she earns. Our younger sister, Willa, is only six. It would've been a long while before Grandad told her she had hands as graceful as a dancer and rolled a cigar better than a man did.
I don't usually spend much time in the barn when the tobacco leaves are finished with their curing, but that was where I was when Mama told Papa she'd seen Uncle Fred's letter. I'd come home from school, done my chores, and then walked across the snowy field from our house to lie among the few remaining wooden slats that still held their toast-colored leaves. I'd been going to the curing barn a lot since my baby brother died, but Papa had forgotten I was there.
"I've been thinking about Philadelphia," Mama said. Papa had been checking the empty laths for rot and weak spots. He was a couple rows over from me, and I was on my back on the dirt behind a crate, looking up at the leafy ball gowns. The last time Mama had been to Philadelphia was when Henry was still alive. She and Evie had taken him to see a doctor, and they'd come home with the awful news that he wasn't going to get better. There was no doctor in the city or on the face of the whole earth who could cure Henry.
"I think we should go," Mama had said.
At first I thought Willa must be sick now, and that was why Mama wanted to go to Philadelphia again. Or Evie. Or maybe I was the sick one and I didn't even know it yet. But then Mama added she'd seen Uncle Fred's latest letter asking Papa to come work for him in Philadelphia, and now she was thinking it was a good idea after all.
"What made you change your mind?" Papa sounded surprised.
A second or two went by before Mama answered him. "Everything."
Papa paused a moment, too, before he said, "If we do this, I don't think we can undo it."
"We won't be able to get back here that often, Pauline. Not at first."
"I know that, too," Mama said. "If I can bring the girls back to see the family for a week or two in the summer, I can be content with that."
"I don't suppose your parents will be too keen about this. Especially your mother."
"No, maybe not. But you know how she is. She'll quietly stew on it a bit, and then she'll be done. I think in the end she wants us to be happy. I know that's what I'd want for us if I were her."
A funny, spirally feeling had started to wind its way inside me as my parents talked to each other. Papa and Mama were talking about moving to the city to live with Uncle Fred, a man I had only met once. He came out to Quakertown when Granny died. Not Mama's mama, Papa's. When I was eight.
Papa had said, "Are you sure now? Are you sure this is what you want to do?"
"It's what you want to do, isn't it?" Mama replied.
"It will mean a good life for you and the girls. A much better life than what I'm giving you here."
"You've given us a good life, Tom," Mama said.
"I want to give you a better one."
Then Papa said he needed to tell Grandad and break the news to the family and they'd need to sell the house. They talked for a few more minutes, but I wasn't listening to everything they said. I was thinking about leaving my friends and the other family members and the curing barn. I couldn't remember what Uncle Fred's business was, but I was positive it wasn't growing tobacco and rolling cigars. Not in the city. It was so strange to me that my parents could just decide we were leaving and we'd leave. How could we move away from where we'd buried Henry?
When Mama left, I stood up slowly so that I would see Papa before he saw me. But he was looking my direction and he saw my head clear the laths. I'm not afraid of my father. He doesn't yell or curse or storm about when he's angry, but he can look like he wants to. He's tall like Grandad and has the same coffee brown eyes that glitter like stars both when he's happy and when he's sad. And I guess when he's surprised, too.
"I didn't know you were still in here," he said.
"Did you hear everything?"
He gave me a very serious look. "You can't say anything to anybody, not even your sisters, until I talk to Grandad first. You understand?"
"Are we moving to Philadelphia?"
He hesitated a second or two before answering, like he almost couldn't believe it was true himself. "Yes," he said.
"Why? What's wrong with where we live right now?"
Papa moved from his row to mine. "There's nothing wrong with where we live right now. I just have a chance to give you girls a much better home. Better schooling. Better everything. My uncle Fred doesn't have any children. He has no one to leave his home and business to. He wants to leave them to me when he dies. To us. He has a very nice house, Mags. Electric lights in every room. Hot water from the tap."
"And so just like that, we're going?"
"Mama and I've been thinking on it awhile."
"All my friends are here."
"You will make new ones. I promise you will."
"Henry's here." My throat felt hot and thick as I said Henry's name. I looked away from Papa, and in the direction of the cemetery, even though I couldn't see it from inside the curing barn.
Papa put his hands gently on my shoulders so that I would turn my head to face him again. "Henry's in heaven. He's not in the graveyard here-you know that. We're not leaving him; we're taking him with us in our hearts."
I reached up to flick away a couple tears that wanted to trail down my face.
"I need you to promise you won't say anything. Not yet," Papa said.
I didn't answer.
"Maggie, I want your word now."
"I promise," I finally whispered.
"All right, then." He took one hand off my shoulders, but left the other one as he began to lead us toward the big door that led outside. "When I tell your sisters, that's when you'll know it's okay to tell other people. Not until then."