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GRETCHEN HAERTSCH: ON THE FLU – PAST AND PRESENT

June 15, 2009

Gretchen's PhotoI absolutely love the sleuthing required to write historical fiction but outside of my novel-in-progress, I can’t always find an outlet for my enthusiasm. I fear I bore my family and friends with historical minutia. This spring, however, as I completed my young adult novel Grace Rising, there was a happy (in one way) intersection of research and reality.  That’s because my novel is set in Philadelphia during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

 

When the 2009 swine flu reared its ugly head, it struck me that I held privileged information. After two years of perusing the microfilm of the seven – yes, seven – daily newspapers in the Philadelphia of that era, I know a lot about influenza.  To get to the end game of that fall 1918 epidemic:  by the time it had run its course almost 13,000 Philadelphians were dead. 

 

I begin and end my novel with parades.  The first, which took place on September 28, kicked off the Fourth War Bond drive.  Two hundred thousand spectators watched 20,000 march in that parade, and two days later the influenza epidemic had put an iron grip on the city.  The parade that ends my novel?  It’s the victory parade at the Great War’s armistice, the epidemic all but dormant.  Grace Rising is about what happens in between. 

 

Could the pandemic of 1918 have parallels to our 2009 flu scare?  You bet it could.  It also underlines the importance of historical fiction.  Recently, the award-winning children’s writer Richard Peck declared he will write only historical fiction because he believes it is so essential to our children’s education.  Makes me feel a little better about all those hours straining my eyesight (and back) as I gazed in fascination at those old newspapers from 1918 – the microfilm machine serving as a peephole into another time and place when people really lived and loved . . . and died, too.  Stay tuned for a repeat of the swine flu scare this fall — if my research is any guide.

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2009 12:38 PM

    Nice post, Gretchen. I continually hear people say that the swine flu scare is media hype, that this flu is no different from any other and, in most cases, is not serious enough to warrant all the fuss. Does any of your research indicate that the flu that killed so many people in 1918 started out as seemingly “just another flu”?

    By the way, I agree with Richard Peck (and you) about the importance of historical fiction as an educational tool. Most of my knowledge of history stems from a novel I read, which made me want to know more. Keep up the good work.

  2. June 16, 2009 12:54 AM

    Yes, Sandy, in 1918 lots of people also said it was “just the flu,” though they tended to call it the “grippe” during that era. In many areas of the world, there was an early wave in the spring that wasn’t quite so serious and anyone who caught the flu then would gain immunity. There was no early wave in Philadelphia though. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why Philadelphia was the hardest hit city in the country. The collective memory of the pandemic of 1918 was very short; that’s because the end of WWI hit at just about the time the pandemic ending. Almost every family in Philadelphia lost a loved one to the flu. It was a loss too terrible to contemplate for long and people tried to forget. Of course it can be dangerous to forget too much of our history.

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