A few years ago, I read a couple of histories about the 1918 Flu Epidemic (if you are interested, I recommend the one by John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide). Soon after, and entirely by coincidence, I read William Maxwell’s haunting They Came Like Swallows, an autobiographical novel published in 1937 about the impact of the 1918 epidemic. I loved that book — it’s beautifully written from the point-of-view of a child, and describes how the disease ravaged one family, physically and spiritually.
Since then, I have occasionally wondered about flu (or of other diseases) as a literary theme — not in thrillers or apocalyptic novels, or in those “sick kid” books that used to dominate YA before vampires, but as a tool of literary art. Now, don’t get me wrong — I am a huge fan of thrillers and apocalyptic (or more specifically, post-apocalyptic) books (although not of “sick kid” books), and I’m not intending to denigrate them in any way. I’m just curious at how literary fiction treats flu and other diseases, a curiosity I found reawakened by Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.
So I did some poking around to see what I could find. Here’s a short “flu lit” reading list. I’ve only read Maxwell’s, but I am looking forward to reading these. Do you have additional suggestions for the list?
They Came Like Swallows William Maxwell (1937)
Pale Horse, Pale Rider Anne Porter (1939)
The Big Rock Candy Mountain* Wallace Stegner (1943)
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood* Mary McCarthy (1972)
Wickett’s Remedy Myla Goldberg (2005)
This Time of Dying Reina James (2006)
The Last Town on Earth Thomas Mullen (2006)
* These books have significant sections that focus on flu, but are not primarily about flu.