Researchers recently announced that they've reconstructed the virus that caused the deadly 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic. They now believe it originated in birds, and their studies are aimed at preventing future global epidemics of avian flu.
By coincidence, the 1918 disaster has also inspired a new historical novel called Wickett's Remedy (Doubleday), by best selling American writer Myla Goldberg. Five years ago Ms. Goldberg attracted widespread attention with her debut novel, Bee Season, about a girl whose life is transformed by her unexpected success as a spelling bee champion. Wickett's Remedy is also about characters whose lives are transformed, but for very different reasons.
Myla Goldberg began writing Wickett's Remedy after reading a newspaper article, which listed the 1918 influenza outbreak as one of the five worst plagues of all time. She says she was stunned by the fact that the catastrophe seemed to have vanished from public memory, despite the fact that it killed some 22-50 million people worldwide. "In the United States alone, it killed between 500,000 and 800,000 people," Ms. Goldberg says, "more Americans than have been killed in all 20th century wars combined. And this is something that happened in a six to nine month period. And so the idea that memory is something we just cannot trust -- it was that aspect of it that drew me into the story."Wickett's Remedy opens in Boston, where the epidemic soon empties streets, forces shops to shut down, and fills hospitals to overflowing. The main character is Lydia Wickett, a young woman from a working class Irish American background who loses her husband, brother and family friends to the rapidly spreading flu bug. She eventually takes a nursing job at an influenza research facility where tests are being performed on human subjects.
Lydia is fighting another battle as well, over a mail-order tonic called "Wickett's Remedy," that she invented with her late husband. The recipe for the remedy has been stolen by a former business partner of Lydia's husband and turned into a popular soft drink.
The two story lines -- one about an epidemic that lasts less than two years, the other about a soft drink that evolves over decades -- allow Myla Goldberg to look at the ongoing pursuit of health and happiness in America. "You have this epidemic that's coming in and stomping on everything and there's absolutely nothing you can do, whereas this remedy was trying in a small way to be proactive. I was definitely playing with commercial culture and with how things changed over time and analyzing a bit of how we deal with consumer culture these days."
Myla Goldberg weaves into her story letters, advertisements, period songs, and the voices of long-dead characters. Their comments appear in the margins of the book, as if they have come back to life to comment on, or even contradict, events described in the story's main narrative. "They were a wonderful way to remind everyone that no one's memory is sacred," Ms. Goldberg says, "and that nothing is as anybody thinks it is. There are always going to be five other versions.
Myla Goldberg says she wanted to write the novel in what she calls "a timeless voice." "I knew I wouldn't be able to write something that felt like it had been written in 1918," she explains, "but I also knew I didn't want to write something that felt like it had been written in the 21st century. Whatever I'm reading always affects how I'm writing, whether or not I'm aware of it, so for the first two or three years that I was working on this book I limited myself to reading things that had only been written before 1945 or so, so that sort of voice would infect my writing."
Stitching together the novel's different plots lines and narrative devices was like juggling 18 things at once, says Ms. Goldberg. "There are newspaper articles in the story, and those just arose from the research I was doing. Every single article that's in the book from 1918 is a real newspaper article. I realized those, better than anything I could do, gave an idea of what people were like then, what was important to people and what troubled them and what they prized above all else."
So how could the 1918 influenza outbreak --something that had such an impact at the time -- have faded from memory? Myla Goldberg believes one reason is that it was overshadowed by World War I, another major event of global importance, but one that was, in her words, "manmade."
"I think when you can't control something, the instinct is to forget about it as soon as possible. I think the other aspect is that in the beginning of the 20th century, death was just a lot more common," she says. " When you had lots of kids you expected about half of them to die before they reached adulthood, so lots of people dying in an epidemic seemed more like the natural way of things, whereas now, in the 21st century, we like to think we're above all that, and we can cure it."
It took Myla Goldberg five years to write Wickett's Remedy. She spent days walking the streets of Boston, as well as poring over old documents in libraries. What she learned she has transformed into a story that captures the terror and loss of an epidemic whose legacy we are just now beginning to understand.