The Pull of the Stars

Emma Donoghue’s timing for the release of this novel about life over the course of 3 days in a maternity ward during the influenza outbreak in 1918 was perfect! She began this journey in October 2018 to mark the 100 year anniversary of the great flu and sent the last draft to the publishers in March 2020. A mere 4 months later, The Pull of the Stars hit the shelves and the similarities between the fiction and the life we are experiencing now was shocking! This story is made all the more interesting because of the interwoven layers that depict what life was like for women and the poor during those times. One can take their own measure of the level of progress we have made in 100 years.

Nurse Julie Power finds herself in charge of the Maternity/Fever ward at an understaffed and underfunded hospital in Dublin’s city centre. The only assistant available to help her care for these women is a ‘walk-in’ Bridie Sweeney, a ward of the nearby residential institution run by the Catholic church. Bridie takes to the work with an enthusiasm and a level of intelligence that surprises and delights Nurse Power and they quickly fall into an easy camaraderie. Add to the mix Dr. Kathleen Lynn (a real person making an appearance in the novel) who, despite her affiliation with Sinn Fein, a political organization that fought for the independence of Ireland, ran a free clinic to help the city’s poor fight the virus.

The patients in this small ward are critically ill and in varying stages of pregnancy. Without proper supplies and equipment, the women are forced to deliver the babies in the most barbaric of circumstances.

The understory that connects all of the pieces is the impact the class system and the church had on women and the poor. Much of the background information that informed this narrative came from the 2009 Ryan Report on Irish Residential Institutions. Of course, Ireland isn’t the only place on the planet that has allowed the abuse of the most vulnerable to exist but the influence of the church added another layer to the trauma and hardship that was already prevalent.

The Pull of the Stars, which I highly recommend, is an easy read insofar as the story keeps the reader riveted to the page. It is not easy to be an observer, albeit many steps removed, of the horrors that were inflicted on those who were in most need of kindness and generosity.

— Nancy C.