When the Covid pandemic began in early 2020, I read a series of books, fiction and non, about various past “plagues”. The Spanish Flu of 1918 was the first draw, fueled by my grandparents’ stories of it. I read Katherine Ann Porter’s compelling 1939 novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, about a young nurse who has a brief romantic fling with an ailing soldier from whom she contracts influenza and dies. The story is told as a delirious remembering of her frightful last days as she lies dying in a Texas hospital. Susan Meissner’s 2018 novel “As Bright as Heaven” was a timely selection for my family book group just after Covid emerged. It was about a family which moves to Philadelphia to take over a relative’s funeral home just as the Spanish Flu mercilessly infected the city in September 1918. I also reread Albert Camus’ classic 1947 novel, “The Plague”. Finally, I read a detailed non-fiction account of the worldwide impact of the Spanish Flu in Laura Spinney’s “Pale Rider — the Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World”. Lawrence Wright’s 2021 account of the Covid pandemic caught my eye while browsing for new books in my local public library recently. Once engaged with it, I couldn’t put it down.
The Spanish Flu was most devastating in the fall of 1918, just before the November 11 armistice ending World War 1. In the ecstatic relief at the end of the war’s frightful carnage, the equally traumatizing experience of the flu pandemic was largely swept aside. Laura Spinney’s book documents the millions of death worldwide from the flu, far surpassing the number of casualties from the war.
Perhaps there is a survival mechanism in human existence that makes us want to skip over horrendous trauma so that we can go on living. I’ve certainly noticed such a tendency within myself. But reading “The Plague Year” has reminded me of what is lost when we fail to remember our recent history, directed by an impatience that simply wants to be done with an inconvenient interruption to our sense of normalcy.
Wright is a talented journalist and author of a number of compelling nonfiction books, the most noted of which is his 2006 Pullitzer Prize winner, “The Looming Tower — Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”. He does a masterful job of telling the story of the Covid pandemic from its origins in Wuhan to its tragic spread worldwide, fed by stonewalling from the Chinese government and an inept response in the U.S. led by a president with his sites more on re-election than on overcoming the greatest threat facing his people.
Rather than attempt my own comprehensive review, I’m citing a superb one by the talented author and New York Times reviewer, Sonali Deraniyagala. Ms. Deraniyagala is a professional economist who nearly lost her life in the 2004 tsunami in her native Sri Lanka.
Just before their inauguration in January, 2021, Joe Biden and Kamal Harris led a public memorial service at the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool in which they memorialized the over 400,000 Americans who’d died from Covid at that point in time. They also gave tribute to all the health professionals, first responders, and families of those who had died. It was the first national remembrance since the pandemic’s onset, and set a new tone for the federal government’s response to the ongoing crisis. The pandemic is far from over, yet that marked a turning point in our nation’s approach to it. The historic Democratic successes in the recent 2022 midterm elections may be partly due to a sense that we now have intelligent, compassionate adults at the helm for whatever we are facing.
John Bayerl, 11/14/22