By Julie F.
“Many novels depict the brotherhood of men at war. Donoghue celebrates the sisterhood of women bringing life into the world and those who help them along this perilous journey.” – Wendy Smith, The Washington Post, July 21, 2020
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue mesmerizes in the best possible sense. Both the pacing and the claustrophobia of this novel are intense – but it’s claustrophobic in a way that fully serves the plot, as the reader finds themselves in the tiny, overcrowded pandemic maternity ward of a Dublin hospital in 1918, basically the size of a closet, with the Spanish flu raging and World War I coming to a close. The little room is witness to so much – grief, pain, joy, love, trauma, fear, friendship, teamwork, unity, discovery – with the stories of nurse Julia Power and her influenza-ridden patients at the forefront of the action. The reader is propelled through the story, into this place where the characters’ trials and triumphs, representative of those experienced by women across the globe and across millennia, are so poignantly described. It is a story that will impress the reader with its introspective attention to detail and historical accuracy.
Nurse Power is a formidable character: efficient, tenacious, fearless, full of seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy. Yet she is still young and, although not naive, full of uncertainty in a world where children randomly end up orphaned, babies and/or mothers die in childbirth, unequal outcomes are dependent upon wealth and social class, and soldiers like her brother Tim return from the war front unable to speak – or don’t return at all. She tries so hard to keep a cheerful spirit for her patients and for her young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, yet at one point finds herself asking, “Back to this moment – what would be asked of me this morning?” (169). Her story echoes those of countless women who served their communities and countries in wars past, nurses and doctors and midwives and ambulance drivers who never shirked what was asked of them.
Post-2020 readers will find much of the pandemic description sad and uncannily eerie; Donoghue delivered the manuscript to her publishers in March of 2020, two days before Covid was declared a pandemic. But at heart, while still managing to address the random heartaches individuals experience in a world rent asunder by war, disease, and traumatic personal loss, The Pull of the Stars remains a hopeful, inspiring story (as is the author’s more famous and equally claustrophobic Room), about women’s solidarity and strength when tackling what seem to be insurmountable medical issues.
Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch who finds her work as co-editor of Chapter Chats very rewarding. She loves gardening, birds, books, all kinds of music, and the great outdoors.