Philadelphia, 1918: Susan Meissner and Mindy Tarquini on the Influenza Pandemic

Sarah Johnson

The 1918-19 influenza pandemic claimed an estimated 50 million lives worldwide. For its centennial remembrance, Susan Meissner and Mindy Tarquini have written novels set in Philadelphia, the American city that was hit the hardest.

Meissner’s As Bright as Heaven (Berkley, 2018), narrated by Pauline Bright and daughters Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa, movingly depicts how the family’s lives are transformed through loss, love, and hope. The Infinite Now (SparkPress, 2017), Tarquini’s quirky historical fantasy, features Fiora Vicente, a 16-year-old Italian immigrant orphan, a magical curtain, and a spell Fiora casts, creating a bubble that halts time.

Although many Americans have family stories about the Spanish Flu, it remains little-known. Reasons include the pandemic’s speed and reduced media coverage, Meissner says, adding: “Perhaps the most telling reason is that the world was already so weary of the loss of life because of the war… maybe it was fatigue of the soul that caused its survivors to push the memory of this pandemic to the darkest corner.”

Historical records preserve details about the many lives lost. “During a bout with family genealogy, I discovered my grandfather suddenly alone, abandoned in an orphanage outside Philadelphia… he was twelve years old,” Tarquini relates.  “I’d had a vision a few months earlier of a girl being left at an old man’s door. She’d been recently orphaned, was feared by the villagers, and had no idea what she would do next. Suddenly her plight became my grandfather’s. But why were they orphaned?” Searching for information on her great-grandmother, and finding pages of death certificates mentioning influenza, she says, “I had the framework from which to hang my heroine’s story.”

The Infinite Now brings Philly’s bustling Italian-American community to life. From her cultural background, Tarquini knew her characters as well as “fish and pasta on Fridays,” but more research was necessary. “I needed to find out everyday kinds of things, needed to know when the [Ninth Street] Market had developed and why, when houses were built, why all the Italians had aggregated in the same neighborhoods. Photo archives, newspapers and plat maps provided many answers.”

Similarly, an afternoon in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s map room proved fruitful for Meissner. “Although I had walked the downtown streets block by block to get a feel for the city my characters had lived in, what I’d felt had been mere echoes because while many buildings remain from a century ago, the landscape of downtown Philly has changed – all major downtown cities do. In the map room, though, the city maps from one hundred years ago – laid out for me on a large wooden table – showed me what the city looked like then, street by street, building by building… It was like traveling back in time.”

Despite warnings, the city’s Liberty Loan Parade went ahead on September 28, 1918, and the large turnout encouraged influenza’s spread. Both authors took care to describe their parade scenes accurately. “I was able to read online, via the wonderful Free Library’s digital archives, every daily issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer during fall 1918. The media coverage of this hopeful and highly patriotic event was front-page material,” says Meissner. “There are also surviving photographs that show how close the people were standing – shoulder to shoulder – and that the sidewalks were packed with people showing their support to fund and end the war.”

Tarquini consulted newspaper archives and incorporated personal experience: “I’ve spent many a New Year’s Day enjoying the annual Mummer’s Parade. I know how very close those sidewalks become and how narrow Broad Street can feel during such events.”

Finally, both authors shared their writing motivations and approaches. Alongside its whimsical elements, Tarquini’s historical atmosphere feels somber and very real.  “My protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl thrust into an impossible situation. People that age are hardwired for life, for love, for adventure. They are not yet convinced of society’s constrictions,” she explains. “I decided to use the curtain as the tangible manifestation of those inner conflicts.” Amid sorrow and tragedy, the bubble Fiora creates becomes “a safe place where [she] can cushion herself from life’s insecurities.”

Meissner’s powerful novel emphasizes that everyone’s story matters. “I read so many sad accounts of lives lost, but not very many that expounded on the impact of that loss,” she says. “I was inspired to give the fifty million people who perished because of the flu a voice, if you will, through the pages of a historical novel… Those who survived the horror of this pandemic chose to recover by forgetting. We are a century past the recovery stage. We can have a different response to the Spanish Flu of 1918; we can choose to remember it. And I think all those whose lives were taken deserve that remembrance.”

About the contributor: Sarah Johnson is the Historical Novels Review’s Book Review Editor.

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