Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reading Wickett's Remedy in the Time of Swine Flu



You think you've got it bad?

Myla Goldberg's novel, Wickett's Remedy, begins pleasantly enough, as a quaint period piece about a young girl in the early 20th century, escaping South Boston to experience big city life as a shop girl selling men's shirts. Lydia Kilkenny finds love, gets married to a medical student, and sets up house. The narrative is augmented by marginal notes in the point of view of ancillary characters, and newspaper articles and editorial letters from the time, and other snatches of dialogue.


Then the Spanish Influenza happens. The book stops being cute, derails itself from a nice little plot about a ghetto girl who conquers the world, and heads into dark and dangerous territory. Now the marginal notes, the newspaper articles, and disembodied dialogues and unexplained bits of correspondence become sinister, threatening, and the main character, who had seemed a little too sweet, too plucky, too dear, is now our only hope. The book was extremely moving, after things got dire. Once I got to the awful part, I could hardly put it down. The multiplicity of voices becomes part of the story itself, as if the only way the unfairness, the starkness, the confusion of the times could be portrayed is through this fragmentation of the narrative.


Goldberg illuminates a world of which I had absolutely no knowledge, no experience. One third of the world's population was infected with this flu. The mortality rate was 10%. That meant that more than 3% of the world's population died of this disease. Seventeen million in India. Six hundred thousand in the US. The most gruesome fact of the pandemic was that the disease killed strong young adults more effectively than the old or young, because the stronger your immune system the more violently the disease came on. Truly horrific. And the things that happened on the Navy ships. Goldberg hints at horrors, via snatches of dialogue and reports, that defy belief.


I highly recommend Wickett's Remedy to anyone who has been loudly panicking about the swine flu, has felt themselves put upon and afflicted by this outbreak, or has been walking around in a face mask. The things Goldberg will show you will make your life in 2009 seem like a paradise of health and vigor.

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