Monday, May 28, 2012

Yesterday's Dead by Pat Bourke

"The newspaper had been delivered to the gate. There it was again -- the headline "Yesterday's Dead" -- posted over a grim list of names and addresses of the people in Toronto who'd died from the Spanish Flu the day before, the same way the paper listed the names of soldiers who'd died overseas. It seemed to her that the Spanish Flu was like an invading army, leaving grief in its wake as it spewed casualties."

Yesterday's Dead is set in the wealthy suburb of Rosedale, in Toronto in the autumn of 1918. Thirteen year old Meredith Hollings, fresh from rural Port Stuart, has been hired as a maid for Dr. Waterton's family. She needs the job badly so she can help her mom and her younger sister Ellen back home. Her father who abandoned the family, leaving them in debt, has been killed in action in the Great War.

When Meredith arrives in Toronto, the Spanish influenza is front page news. At the Waterton's home Meredith tries to settle in, learning her job from the kindly Mrs. Butters, and dealing with the unfriendly butler, the stiff, prickly Mr. Parker. At the same time she also meets Dr. Waterton's oldest son, Jack, the snobby, self-centered daughter, Margaret, and their younger brother,  five year old Harry. There's also Thomas Aloysius O'Hagan and his sister Bernadette, whose mother cleans at the Watertons. Tommy, as he is known, becomes a true friend to Meredith.

When the Spanish Flu hits Toronto, Meredith is left to care for a desperately ill Mrs. Butters while Dr. Waterton heads to the hospital. Soon Parker, Jack, and Harry are also ill. Meredith must not only look after the ill, but run the household, hoping she too doesn't succumb. She can only pray that Dr. Waterton will soon arrive back home, but it becomes apparent that it will be some time before he does. Until then Meredith must remain strong and carry on.

 Bourke sets up a lively conflict between Meredith and thirteen year old Margaret Waterton, who won't help and insists that Meredith still serve her meals, despite the crisis. It isn't until the situation becomes desperate, that Margaret finally puts aside her notions of class differences and pitches in.Tragedy strikes both at the Waterton's and at the O'Hagans. No family will remain untouched by the pandemic.

Bourke uses each of her characters to show how the influenza affected people differently, and how it was healthy young people, usually not the most susceptible age group, who died quickly. Jack, in the prime of his life becomes desperately ill, while younger Harry is only mildly sick. Certain characteristics of the illness, such as bleeding from the mucous membranes and rapid onset pneumonia are accurately portrayed in the novel. Bourke also effectively portrays the confusion and misinformation people had about the disease and the home remedies attempted to stave off infection through the use of dialogue between her characters.

The novel contains a wide range of characters from different classes in Toronto society making Yesterday's Dead engaging and realistic. This variety of characterization serves to demonstrate that the pandemic was not respectful of class divisions, infecting both the rich in Rosedale, and their poorer neighbours in Cabbagetown - a fact that surprises Meredith.

Although the novel has a predictable end, Yesterday's Dead is a historical novel that gently, yet realistically portrays what life was like in Toronto during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. Tens of thousands of Torontonians sickened and approximately 1,700 died. In fact so many died, that the undertakers would pass along the streets every day to collect the dead bodies. Life came to a virtual standstill while the pandemic passed through. Hospitals were overrun and short-staffed since many doctors and nurses had left to serve at the front or on the military bases. The novel accurately states that retired doctors and nurses were called upon to treat the sick and dying.

Bourke also provides young readers with a glimpse at what young working as maids could expect in the early 20th century. Meredith has lied about her age to get her job and has given up schooling because she needs to help her family financially. This was an all too common scenario for many children at this time.

The title of the novel refers to the section in the daily newspapers entitled, Yesterday's Dead, which published the names of those people who died the previous day -- as the above quote demonstrates. The novel has an excellent and accurate historical note at the back which provides young readers with more information on the 1918 influenza pandemic as it relates to Toronto. This novel will be of interest to young readers, 11 to 14, who are interested in Canadian historical fiction.

It is likely there will be more historical novels written on the 1918 pandemic in the coming years, as the 100th anniversary of this event approaches. It's refreshing to read a novel with a Canadian perspective on such a major historical event. A great debut novel for author Pat Bourke.

Book Details:
Yesterday's Dead by Pat Bourke
Toronto: Second Story Press      2012
256 pp.

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