I listened to this historical novel about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, and I was transfixed by the similarities.
Told through the eyes of four women, a mother and her three daughters, As Bright As Heaven was released in 2018 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Spanish flu. Author Susan Meissner could never have known (nor could any of us) about the pandemic she, too, would live through. I listened intently as characters in puffed-sleeve long dresses who rode on streetcars experienced the same things I was experiencing or watching on TV: grief, death, and invisible contagions zipping through crowds and killing later. Fear and paranoia. Then the experience of quarantining, social isolation, no crowds, shopping, or school. Bored kids. And people turning on each other as they disagreed about various containment measures.
I learned that the flu hit Philadelphia hard—12,000 residents died during the pandemic. And I learned what it was like for an undertaker and his family to cope with the deluge of bodies stacked up by their door, even as I turned on the news and watched modern funeral directors deal with an eerily similar situation in hard-hit areas.
Besides the fascination of sharing an experience with characters from a century ago, I was engrossed with the characters—mother Pauline and daughters Evelyn, Maggie and Willa, played by four different narrators. As the novel opens, the Bright family, grieving the loss of their baby son, moves from rural Quakertown, Penn., to the bustling city of Philadelphia, where the city’s young men are just about to be sent to war. Just as they settle into the funeral home where Mr. Bright is learning the undertaking trade from his uncle, the flu hits, and their lives change forever.
An adoption storyline saves the narrative from becoming unbearably bleak: at the peak of the flu and its carnage, the family takes in a baby orphaned by the pandemic who becomes their single ray of light. I had heard this book was sad, and it is. However, Meissner expertly weaves hope and resilience into the storyline, so it becomes ultimately uplifting instead of depressing.
Some books are better read in print, but As Bright as Heaven works well as an audiobook. With four distinct voices narrating the four main characters, it immerses the listener in a different world with all the dramatic power of a radio drama.
Meissner is a believer who left Christian publishing for mainstream publishing. Her craft is strong and compelling; I began to listen at all hours of the day and look for chances to sneak away and find out what would happen. I loved finding evidence of faith and truth artfully woven in, and I loved the fact that I could recommend this book to everyone, even the most sensitive of readers. This riveting novel immersed me in a world unlike my own, yet strangely similar, and reminded me that just as God was with his people who lived through that pandemic, he was and is with me living through this one. (Audible)