GRETCHEN HAERTSCH: ON THE FLU – PAST AND PRESENT
I 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.