(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 22, 2006)
Arguably the most chilling sentences in Wickett's Remedy, come at the very end when author Myla Goldberg reminds us of the severity of the 1918 flu pandemic. "The 1918 flu pandemic -- whose cause is still a matter of debate -- killed more Americans in ten months than died in all twentieth-century wars combined, and killed well over 20 million people worldwide," she writes.
Goldberg, whose debut, The Bee Season, was a phenomenal success, creates in her second novel, a recreation of the 1918 flu pandemic -- the central character in her new book is one as charming and resolute as the young Eliza Naumann was in Bee Season. Here, Lydia Kilkenny, a young lady growing up in South Boston, has ambitions that take her beyond the limited confines of her neighborhood.
Lydia turns out to be the "migrating bird in a family of pigeons" and works for a while as a salesgirl at a department store in downtown Boston. Her job doesn't last too long -- soon she is courted by a young, sickly medical student, Henry Wickett, and the two get married. Lydia's companionship encourages Henry to quit his medical studies -- he instead relies on the power of his written word to compose letters to the ill seeking cures for various ailments. For a quarter, those looking for a cure, would be dispatched a bottle of Wickett's Remedy, a home-cooked concoction made by Lydia, along with a letter written by Henry. After some moderate initial success, a business deal is struck with a young, enterprising businessman, Quentin Driscoll. Unfortunately tragedy strikes the young couple and Lydia is forced to move back to Southie and to her Irish Catholic family.
Set around the time of the First World War, Goldberg does a beautiful job of describing Boston's South End towards the beginning of the twentieth century. Slowly, as the flu strikes down many neighbors and friends close to her, Lydia becomes invested in helping the ill and dying -- her second attempt at a "Wickett's Remedy."
Lydia travels to Gallups Island, away from the city, to assist in a medical study that is to shed light on the causes and transmission of the flu that has shaken so many American cities. Here, inmates from nearby Deer Island Naval prison, are subjects in a wait-and-watch game as they are exposed to flu samples and their conditions monitored daily. It is this test that is the most unnerving -- as the unwitting participants play a game of roulette not knowing who among them, will be next to fall victim to the malicious disease.
Goldberg does a good job in covering the increasing sense of unease -- the casual demeanor in which the doctors conduct the study only amplifies the dread felt by Lydia, and therefore, the reader. "It came as a grave disappointment to know that aiding medical science was not the same as aiding medical practice," Lydia says.
In history, the actual cause of the 1918 flu pandemic was never known, even if a study similar to the one detailed in the book was carried out. Goldberg has said in a recent interview, that one of the most striking facts she learned from her more than three years of research was the incredible paralysis it wrought on daily life in many major American cities. Wickett's Remedy includes real newspaper clippings from the time and one of these is a city ordinance from Boston that closes all places of amusement, public schools and meeting houses.
In addition to the main narrative, Goldberg peppers the novel with a couple other inventive devices. One of these is a chronicling of the original Wickett's remedy, and its adoption by Quentin Driscoll, who converts the recipe to QD Soda. Despite later repenting it Driscoll, till the very end, never pays Lydia her share of the soda's profits.
In the margins of the novel, Goldberg throws out an occasional remembered insight by a member of "Us," souls long gone and who offer a slightly varied interpretation of events laid out in the text. This technique, Goldberg has suggested, works because the book is "very much about exploring memory, its unreliability, and its frailty, both on an individual and a collective level."
The 1918 pandemic killed over 20 million people worldwide. As the statistics about the probability of a new pandemic worry newspaper headlines, one hopes that memory is indeed reliable and not frail -- that some lessons have been learned from a historical event of such magnitude that it "muddled the earth's diurnal rhythm." Or maybe it is wise to follow the advice set out in the last of the newspaper's clippings in Goldberg's enjoyable book: "Positive Outlook is the Best Medicine."
- Amazon readers rating: from 28 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Time's Magpie: A Walk in Prague (November 2004)
- Catching the Moon (May 2007)
Movies from books:
- Bee Season (2005)
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- Official website for Myla Goldberg
- Reading group guide for Bee Season
- Bold Type: excerpt from Bee Season
- Wikipedia page on Bee Season
- Salon.com review of Bee Season
- Excerpt from Time's Magpie
- The Village Voice review of Wickett's Remedy
- Trashotron review of Wickett's Remedy
- The New York Times review of Wickett's Remedy
- MostlyFiction.com review of The False Friend
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About the Author:
Myla Goldberg grew up in Laurel, Maryland and attended Oberlin College, which she graduated in 1993 with a degree in English. She spent a year in Prague teaching English to former Communist ministers and writing.
Her short stories have appeared in the anthology, "Virgin Fiction," as well as in the literary journals, "Ecclectic Literary Forum" and "American Writing" and have appeared in Harper’s, McSweeneys, and failbetter.
Myla is also a musician, playing banjo, flute and accordian in the band The Galerkin Method.
She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, cartoonist Jason Little and their daughter.