Sunday, October 4, 2020

Women and the Blood Tax

The Irish-Canadian-Lesbian novelist Emma Donoghue is probably best known for Room (2010), about a young woman kidnapped and imprisoned in a one-room outbuilding until she's old enough to bear her abductor's child.  The story is told from the son's perspective.  It became a best seller and was made into a movie, which I skipped.  The book was well-done, but abuse porn is not my genre of choice.  I'm relieved that I'm not the only person who feels this way; I do wonder about people who eat it up.)

Since 2010 Donoghue has published seven more books in a variety of genres -- young adult, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, and a collection of stories.  Her newest one, The Pull of the Stars (Little, Brown), was published only a year after its predecessor, Akin, and by a remarkable coincidence she completed it just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning.

The narrator and protagonist of The Pull of the Stars is Julia Power, a midwife and maternity nurse in Dublin in 1918.  The novel begins at the end of October, a few weeks before the armistice that ended World War I, and a few months into the great American influenza pandemic that would eventually kill millions of people around the world.  The marks of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 are still on the city, with bombed-out buildings and the memories of hundreds killed still a sore presence.  Hospitals were already overtaxed by wounded soldiers, and the the onslaught of people sick and dying of flu strains the hospitals and the city to the breaking point.  Nurses, doctors, and staff are falling sick, so those who can still work are exhausted and fearful.  Julia has already had the flu, so she's immune, but that mainly means that she must go on working until she almost literally drops.  She's usually assigned to a small ward for women on the verge of giving birth who also have influenza, which is where most of the novel takes place.  

On the first day of the novel she's the only nurse on the ward, but then a new volunteer comes in, a much younger woman named Bridget (Bridie) Sweeney, who turns out to be a very effective assistant, quick and eager to learn.  Even so, a large amount of action is packed into three days, as patients try to survive long enough to give birth and Julia and Bridie try to keep them and their newborns alive; not always successfully.  Most of the action is obstetrical, as none of the cases are uncomplicated, with a lot of detail that may make some readers queasy; be warned.  

Donoghue began writing the book in 2018 for the centennial of the epidemic, with no idea of what was to come.  I was impressed by the amount of research Donoghue put into it; it's intense but not gratuitous.  The aim is to depict the lives and deaths of ordinary people in a poor country in wartime crossed with an epidemic, and The Pull of the Stars succeeds vividly.  It's not pleasant, but it's important, and it's not abuse porn either.  The many parallels to the present pandemic enhance the story's power: people who go from healthy to dead in a day or two, or who linger on, with "recovery" that amounts to lifelong damage; people who refuse to protect themselves or others (masks were as political an issue in 1918 as they are today); the aggravation of the disease by poverty and dirt, the contempt for the poor by the better-off.

There's more to The Pull of the Stars that I haven't gone into here because it's new, so anyone who might be moved to read it will still find some surprises.  But one theme worth pointing out is sounded about halfway through.  One of the male hospital orderlies mocks the idea of women voting.  Julia snaps:

Haven't we proved our worth to your satisfaction yet?

The orderly grimaced.  Well, you don't serve, do you?

I was taken aback.  In the war?  Many of us most certainly are serving, as nurses and drivers and --

The orderly waved that away.  Don't pay the blood tax, though, do you?  Not like we fellows do.  Ought you really get a say in the affairs of the United Kingdom unless you're prepared to lay down your lives for the king?

I saw red.  Look around you, Mr. Groyne.  This is where every nation draws its first breath.  Women have been paying the blood tax since time began.

He snickered on his way out [179-80].

At first this felt a bit too neat, almost cliched.  But, for what it's worth, around 1500 women nurses from various countries died in the Great War.  I can't find how many ambulance drivers died, but it looks like a similar number.  Many more men died, but remember that women were barred from combat, and even their driving ambulances met with opposition; on the other side of the coin, most soldiers who died were killed by disease and famine, not by 'enemy' weapons.  What drove men to enlist, when they weren't conscripted, was not necessarily a desire to serve the King or President Wilson but a longing for adventure, machismo, and other less edifying motives.  Nor is military service a prerequisite for men who want to vote.

Then it occurred to me that The Pull of the Stars is a war novel - not merely a wartime novel, but formally similar to stories about combat: the courage needed to care for the sick when death might strike down the caregiver, working in gushes of blood and other body fluids, camaraderie among the grunts and conflict with higher-class superior officers.  I've been reading some World War I era fiction recently, and The Pull of the Stars has a lot in common with those stories.  It has been speculated that men perpetuate war partly out of a desire to face the same mortal dangers women have historically faced whenever they went into childbirth, hence the sexual division between war as men's work and childbearing as women's work.  Whether Donoghue intended the parallel or not, I detected it, and it lends added force to her story.  If other readers don't see it, fine.  In any case, The Pull of the Stars is worth reading.  I started reading Donoghue with her second novel, Hood, and she keeps getting better.