It may seem like insanity to read a book about a pandemic while currently living through a pandemic. And not just any pandemic but THE pandemic, the one to which all experts compare our current COVID pandemic – the Spanish Influenza epidemic. However, in the capable hands of Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars becomes a story so much more than its setting with its universal themes of hope, love, and compassion.
Told through the eyes of one Julia Power, we experience her life as a midwife living in Dublin in 1919 before the end of the Great War but still in the midst of the Spanish Influenza pandemic. We experience three days as the head nurse of an isolated maternity ward for those pregnant women who have the flu. Short of staff and room, we see her come into her own as she must make life-or-death decisions while providing comfort and care to her patients.
Julia is a remarkable character, so well-defined that you forget that she is fictional. Her experiences in those three days are insane and yet one gets the impression that they are also completely normal. Her constant level-headedness and, most importantly, the compassion she shows each of her patients are a refreshing reminder of how people should act in times of crisis.
So much of the story could happen today. Through her patients and through her own commute to and from work we see the same poverty, the same loss, the same abuse, the same scorn for anyone who is different. Even eerier, we read posters that talk about keeping your distance from others to stay healthy, we see people wearing masks to protect themselves, and we see the fear that occurs when someone in public sneezes or coughs. Yet, at no time did I feel uncomfortable about reading the novel. If anything, there is a strange comfort one finds in understanding how little things change sometimes, even when it should.
The one thing The Pull of the Stars did do is to reinforce my belief that the Catholic Church is not only hypocritical but also evil in the damage it has done to those they profess to protect. Taking place in the very Catholic Dublin in a Catholic hospital no less, one encounters the policies established by the Church in a myriad of ways. However, it is the impact of those policies and the Catholic belief system on the women in Julia’s care which drive home that hypocrisy.
The Pull of the Stars is a remarkable story for several reasons. For one, Julia Power is a fascinating character. She doesn’t do anything other than act with compassion, but you finish the novel thinking her the wisest of women. For another, the story has a timeless quality to it because the social issues Julia sees occurring within her own little ward occur across time. Lastly, it reinforces today’s messaging about mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing as the only acceptable ways to maintain your health while the current influenza virus rages around the globe.