About the Book:
In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters--Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa--a chance at a better life.
But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without--and what they are willing to do about it.
As Bright as Heaven is the compelling story of a mother and her daughters who find themselves in a harsh world not of their making, which will either crush their resolve to survive or purify it.
I like happy feel-good reads, and this isn't one. Yes, it ends with joy, and hope, and vision of the future, but death is the reason for much of the book, and for that reason it took me a while to read. No, it isn't a difficult read, it's just that my mind is mush and sometimes it takes work to get beyond a romance novel lately.
I've read a lot of books about WWII, but this is one of the few set during WWI that I've read. 1918 was not only the year of WWI, it was also the year of the flu epidemic; both play a role in the story, but the flu in a much more powerful way--and some quick research I did showed that more people died of the flu than from the war.
What I've always considered to be signature of Susan Meissner's writing is an artifact of some sort linking a character in today's world to a character in the past. That is lacking in this book; it is pure historical fiction with no modern characters or subplot. Also, may of Meissner's early books were Christian fiction, though generally on the milder end of the spectrum; this is general market women's fiction.
The story starts with Pauline's youngest child dying and Pauline never completely emotionally recovering from that. It's funny, we know in our heads that babies died in those days, and that it wasn't uncommon for people we consider young today to die, but how often do we put ourselves in the shoes of those young mothers whose babies didn't survive infancy? I've "always" known that my mother had an older sister--though I've never thought of her as such--she was nothing to me but a stone in the graveyard. When I was pregnant with my first child, I threatened to miscarry and at that point I wondered how my grandmother had felt when her baby died. Years later for some reason my mom told me that my grandmother became depressed when she went through menopause and that my grandfather had asked my mom, who was on her own by that time, to come home for a while to cheer her mom. My mom said that my grandfather mentioned that my grandmother had been like that after they lost the baby, and that he understood that, but couldn't understand why she was so upset over something that everyone knew would happen at about that age.
Back to the book, Pauline and her family move to Philadelphia to live/work in a funeral parlor and caring for the dead Pauline begins to heal.
The story follows the family through the flu epidemic and then the end of WWI and to the beginning of Prohibition. The world was changing, and so was the family. One of the daughters ends up in medical school and working as a psychiatrist.
Susan Meissner does a great job of capturing the era, the death, the hope, the change and despite the fact that it isn't all smiles and rainbows, I recommend the book highly. Grade: A.
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.