Monday, February 5, 2018

As Bright as Heaven, by Susan Meissner

Berkley Publishing Group, ISBN 9780399585968, February 2018

In 1918, with the Great War under way, but not yet having a big impact at home in America, the Bright family moves from Quakertown to Philadelphia. Thomas Bright has been asked to join his Uncle Fred's undertaker business, and eventually be his heir.

It's not Thomas's viewpoint, or Fred's, that we see this story from. It's Thomas's wife, Pauline, and their three daughters, Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa, who tell the story.

All seems bright and hopeful when they arrive. Evelyn has access both to her uncle's own library, and to the public library not far away. Maggie makes friends with Charlie Sutcliffe, and his older brother, Jamie, who live across the street. Willa makes new friends. Thomas learns to be an undertaker, and in time, a fully trained mortician. Fred is reluctant to agree, at first, but Pauline takes over the cosmetics for the dead, once they are embalmed and any major injuries repaired by Thomas and Fred. Even more gradually and reluctantly, Maggie is allowed to join her mother in that final preparation of the dead. They both find comfort and fulfillment in it.

Then things change. Jamie Sutcliffe is drafted. Thomas enlists so that he can get assigned as a medic rather than infantry. The Brights and the Sutcliffes adjust to life without Thomas and Jamie, but that's only the start. Stories of an exceptionally nasty influenza, called the Spanish flu more by accident than any good reason--and it's not long before the flu makes its way to Philadelphia.

Philadelphia was one of the hardest-hit American cities in what was possibly the deadliest pandemic in human history. The Brights and the Sutcliffes work their way through it, as the undertaking business becomes dramatically harder, and dramatically more heartbreaking. Both the numbers of the dead, and the potential threat of spreading the disease from handling them, makes speed, efficiency, and preventing gatherings of the family and friends terrible and necessary steps.

All four of the Bright ladies try to find their way to do the right things, the sensible things, the moral things in this time of trouble.

Not all of them will survive.

This is a very finely crafted and humane story, with beautifully developed characters.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.