As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

Jul 31, 2020

When the coronavirus swept across the country at the beginning of March, I became fascinated with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. I learned that schools and campuses shut down just like they did here (although the closures didn't last as long--generally one to three months). I learned that the disease was violently fast: you could be fine when you woke up one morning and be dead by the next. I learned that the young were hit much harder than the older population; apparently, there had been a less severe strain that had passed through several decades before, which made many older people immune to the more virulent strain. I learned that the flu hit in three waves and wasn't officially over until 1920. I learned that the Spanish flu was one of the deadliest diseases in world history and killed an estimated fifty million people.

But most importantly, I learned that life eventually returned to normal. I clung to this fact during the first couple of months of the pandemic. It was very reassuring to know that even though it might take years, the virus would eventually run its course and let us move on with our lives.

When I found out As Bright as Heaven takes place in 1918, I immediately ordered a copy of it (our library wasn't open at the time, but even if it had been, my impatience to read it might have forced me to buy it).

One of the book club questions at the back of the book said, "What do you think it would be like to live in a city experiencing a pandemic, as Philadelphia did with the flu?" Little did the author know that in just a couple of years, she would be having first-hand experiences that would have helped her write a more emotionally accurate novel. And indeed, for me as a reader, I felt a deep commiseration with the Bright family as so many of their thoughts and feelings paralleled my own. There was a kinship there that made me instantly connect with the novel.

The story opens at the beginning of 1918. The Bright family is mourning the death of their beloved baby son/brother whose heart wasn't strong enough to carry him through life. An offer comes from Uncle Fred: he runs a mortuary in Philadelphia and wants to know if Thomas wants to learn the trade and eventually inherit the business.

The new start is just what the family needs to ease their grief; Thomas and Pauline pack up their belongings and embark on a different life with their three daughters: Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa. Life in the city is an adjustment, as is being in a home that houses and cares for the deceased, but overall it seems like a good change.

Pauline is immediately drawn to the embalming room. She has felt a closeness with Death ever since she lost her son, and she is soon in charge of all of the cosmetic tasks as the bodies are prepared for burial.

Evelyn, at fifteen, is studious and mature. She works hard at school and spends much of her time in Uncle Fred's extensive library.

Thirteen-year-old Maggie is drawn to the neighbor boys across the street: Jamie, who is about to head off to war (and who Maggie has a not-so-secret crush on, even though he is seven years older than her), and his younger brother, Charlie, who is mentally slow but so kind and sweet.

And then there's Willa. She is only six years old and is forbidden inside the embalming room. She is at once both innocent and selfish.

The story is told from the perspectives of these four characters. The point of view was somewhat random as the author often chose to tell about an event from a secondary, rather than the primary, person. This often provided a more objective, well-rounded view of things, which I liked.

The Spanish flu hit Philadelphia in October 1918, just after Thomas Bright left to serve in the war. The disease ripped through the city and quickly overwhelmed Uncle Fred as bodies filled up the embalming room and mortuary and were illegally dropped off on his doorstep in the middle of the night. The flu was unpredictable, taking some family members and leaving others. Maggie said,
"It's as if Philadelphia has been cut in two like an apple, and one side looks just the way the inside of an apple should and the other side is dark and wormy and makes you gasp when you see it. That side isn't an apple at all anymore but something sinister and wrong. And the worst thing is, no one's sure which side of the apple they're going to get." 
The Bright family is not spared, but just before the illness sneaks its way into their house, Maggie and Pauline are out delivering soup to the many souls who are suffering. Pauline leaves Maggie outside while she goes inside one of the infected homes, and Maggie's attention is drawn to the sound of a baby in deep distress. She ventures inside a nearby row house, and finds a baby soiled and starving and screaming. She peaks into a bedroom and sees the baby's mother, who is obviously dead. A little girl, the boy's sister, is also in the home, and her glassy eyes tell Maggie that she is also near death. Maggie picks up the baby, locks eyes with the girl, and whispers, "He's safe with me" before rushing out of the house.

The baby helps pull the Bright family through more tragedy. He is a distraction for them as they put all of their energy into caring for him. Evelyn said,
"The world doesn't stop. It just keeps spinning, with all its troubles, yanking us into its wild revolutions. There is no stepping into mourning, all secluded with nothing but much-warranted sorrow for company. Instead it's as if the train we're all on switched tracks at full speed and now we are racing forward in a completely new direction with no time to think about the destination we'd been headed toward before and now will never see." 
This description resonated with me. Even though we haven't experienced the same kind of loss as Evelyn and her family, there has been the rush of primal life--basic needs that must still be met, even as we struggle to catch our breath with the many changes that are constantly being thrown in our path. This story resonated with me in a way that it wouldn't have six months ago. I know what it feels like to have life come screeching to a halt all while it incessantly keeps pushing forward.

The story eventually jumps ahead seven years to 1925, but I can't share any more of it without giving away big things: moments that were beautiful and heartbreaking and brought me to tears.

As an interesting side note, my dad comes from a family of morticians. His great-grandpa and grandpa owned a furniture store that doubled as a funeral home. My dad's mom went to college and received a degree in English, but she had also always had a dream of following in the path of her father and getting her embalming license. So in 1944, at the age of 29, she enrolled in the College of Mortuary Science and did just that. Even though she only used her license for a few years, she was very proud of it. I can still remember visiting her in the nursing home during the last years of her life and seeing it prominently displayed above her bed.

Because of my grandma's deep interest in serving as a stepping stone between the living and the dead, this book held a different kind of appeal for me. In reading about the Bright family's experience caring for the dead, I felt a little closer to my own heritage.

I read the last fourth of the book on a beautiful summer's day when my family and I had gone to the cabin for the day. With my kids all occupied in various activities, I sneaked away to the hammock hanging between the trees. I read (and then reread) what ended up being my favorite scenes in the book, and I think I'll always associate this book with happy memories, which is one of the best ways to enjoy a story.

I have since given my mom a copy of this book for her birthday and convinced my sister to read it as well. It could not have been a more perfect book to read at this crazy time, and it gets all the praise from me.

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