Wednesday 23 September 2020

The Pull of the Stars | Emma Donoghue #HistoricalFiction


After reading a number of slow, reflective reads lately, I needed something a bit easier and faster. The Pull of the Stars fit the bill nicely. It was easy to read, even with the rather detailed 1918 midwifery and autopsy scenes that left me gasping and wincing in sympathy!

In keeping with my current Plague Lit phase, this is a book about the 1918-19 influenza that devastated the entire world as World War One was coming to an end. 

The book charts three days on the maternity/fever ward in a hospital in Dublin, Ireland, with Nurse Julia Power and her young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney. The hospital is extremely understaffed, and Nurse Power is working a room barely bigger than a cupboard with just enough space for three beds. Power has already had the fever and recovered, as is now considered immune.

Donoghue weaves in all the rumours and myths that surrounded the Spanish flu including it being a 'miasma' coming off all the dead bodies from the war in France, a religious judgement about said war, the consequence of so many people travelling or 'milling about across the globe', or an alignment or influence of the stars (hence the name of the book).

My reading tended to focus on the points of connection or similarity between then and now. On her way in to work, Power notices 'so many shops shuttered now due to staff being laid low by the grippe...many of the firms that were still open looked deserted to me, on the verge of failing for lack of custom.'

There were the contrarians who didn't like having their personal freedoms curtailed for the greater good and therefore, chose to believe that the effects of the flu were being exaggerated. There was suspicion about government propaganda and oodles of old wives tales about how best to prevent catching the flu - from using eucalyptus oil, carrying raw garlic in your pocket or around your neck, gargling brandy, eating an onion a day, carrying rosaries and other charms and amulets.

The science was not as quick as it is now, but facts about the nature of the Influenza constantly changed and evolved as more research and tests were done. As now, this added to some people's confusion and allowed conspiracy theorists to thrive. The Spanish flu was referred to by numerous names such as the great flu, khaki flu, blue flu, black flu, the grippe, or the grip, the malady, and the war sickness.

The government propaganda signs were confusing, contradictory and often laughable. 
A new foe is in our midst: panic. The general weakening of nerve power known as war-weariness has opened a door to contagion. Defeatists are the allies of disease.

The public is urged to stay out of public places such as cafes, theatres, cinemas and public houses. See only those persons one needs to see. Refrain from shaking hands, laughing, or chatting closely together. If one must kiss, do so through a handkerchief. Sprinkle sulphur in the shoes. If in doubt, don't stir out.

The Government has this situation well in hand and the epidemic is actually in decline. There is no real risk except to the reckless who try to fight the flu on their feet. If you feel yourself succumbing, report yourself, and lie down for a fortnight. Would they be dead if you stayed in bed.

The Pull of the Stars was a great holiday read (I read it in two days lying on the beach). I learnt probably more than I ever need to know about certain birthing matters and I was curious to learn about the colour phases of the flu's development - from red to brown, to blue, to black, that Donoghue used to create her chapter headings. Overall, an engaging read with plenty of parallels to our times.

  • Donoghue is Irish born but now lives in London, Ontario, so The Pull of the Stars will probably appear on many of the Canadian literary prizes starting with this year's longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
  • On her website, and in her author's notes at the back of the book, Donoghue said,
A personal note: I began this novel in October 2018, inspired by the centenary of the Great Flu of 1918-19, and I delivered the final draft to my publishers in March 2020, two days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. In researching the Great Flu, one fact that leapt out at me was that women before, during and for weeks after birth were particularly vulnerable to catching and suffering terrible complications from that virus. I’ve put into this story some of the labour dramas of women I know (and one of my own), and all my gratitude to frontline health workers who see us through our most frightening and transformative experiences. I could have set The Pull of the Stars anywhere, but I went for my home town of Dublin partly because Ireland was going through such a fascinating political metamorphosis in those years, and because I wanted to reckon with my country’s complicated history of carers, institutions and motherhood.


  • Dr Kathleen Lynn (a secondary but memorable character) was a real life rebel doctor whose worked focused on the well being of infants and their mothers.
  • Bridie's back story, as well as that of one of the young mum's in the ward with Nurse Power, were based on real life events as told to the 2009 Ryan Commission and discussed in this article here.

Other Books by Donoghue:

Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads

Current Plague Reads:
  • Journal of a Plague Year | Daniel Defoe
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction)
Up Next:
  • Intimations | Zadie Smith (non-fiction)
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter
Plague/Pandemic Books On My Radar:
  • Station Eleven | Emily St John Mandel
  • Blindness | José Saramago
  • The Last Man | Mary Shelley
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World | Steven Johnson (non-fiction)
  • Nemesis | Philip Roth
  • Love in the Time of Cholera | Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Years of Rice and Salt | Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Dog Stars | Peter Heller
  • The Children’s Hospital | Chris Adrian
  • Severance | Ling Ma
  • The White Plague | Frank Herbert
  • The Passage | Justin Cronin


  1. Oh, I love the cover on your copy. Glad you enjoyed this one. I am waiting for my turn on the library list.

    1. I'm always fascinated by cover choices Diane. Australia often gets the UK cover, but occasionally we get a cover just designed for our market. It looks like this is the cover they went with in Ireland (and possibly Canada) too.

      The US cover with the old fashion fob goes for the historic element. I'm not exactly sure why the birds on our cover though. Perhaps the reference to mask wearing, in the story, looking like some unknown bird's beak???

  2. The Spanish Flu, and the situation in the US, show that it was not possible to do nothing about Covid-19. And I think Obama's response to Ebola demonstrated that very early action can lead to the disease not getting the chance to spread. But I wonder if we are now doing too much. That say masks and clean hands might let us lead 'normal' lives with much the same illness and death as the flu. Bill

    1. It does feel like we might be at the point Bill, although as this book highlights, there were even folk back in 1918 who wouldn't be told to wear mask and refused. I was on the train today for the first time since March, up to the mountains, and there was a guy at the back of the carriage coughing in a really chesty, phlegmy, nasty way. It wasn't until someone called out 'for god's sake wear a mask why don't you?' that I realised he was one of the few unmasked on the whole train.

  3. Bit much for me, I think, but good work reading all these important and significant books!

    1. It was pretty detailed in the things that can happen to a baby and mother during childbirth, and I'm normally squeamish with anything medical, but I only had to look away twice! The rest I found really interesting precisely thanks to the detail that was relevant to the time.

  4. Well, this book didn't make the shortlist, but I still plan to read it because (as you now know) I love reading about plagues and epidemics. So, I'm looking forward to it! Also looking forward to reading your reviews of all those other plague/pandemic books on your list. Of the ones you've listed I've read Year of Wonders, Oryx and Crake, Station Eleven, Blindness, The Ghost Map, Severance, and The Passage. All of them are good!


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