As Bright as Heaven is set against the backdrop of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. As World War I is in its final year, the flu took as many as 50 million lives world wide, second only to the Black Death in mortality rates. Worldwide it took far more lives than the war, but it’s not part of our history that we hear much about.
The novel is set in Philadelphia, where more than 12,000 people died, making it one of the hardest hit cities in America. The story follows the Bright family. When the novel opens, they are living in rural Pennsylvania where Thomas (the father) works in the family tobacco farm and cigar rolling business. He and his wife, Pauline, have three laughters–Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa–and they have just recently buried their fourth child, Henry, who had a congenital heart defect.
Thomas’s uncle Fred lives in Philadelphia and runs a funeral parlor. He’s 71 but has no family–no heir–to leave his home and business to, so he invites Thomas to move his family into the big house in Philadelphia and to learn the funeral business, with an eye to inheriting it eventually.
The story begins in 1918, so the backdrop of World War I is also in place, as more and more Americans are called into service to fight in France. After several months in Philadelphia, the influenza epidemic hits and everyone’s lives are changed. Between the war and the flu, it was a devastating period in American history.
One result of the epidemic is that while Maggie and her mother are bringing soup to ill church members, Maggie discovers a child in a tenement building who is crying. Maggie goes in and discovers the infant’s mother is dead and the sister looks as if she’s about to die, so Maggie takes the baby to keep it safe.
The details of 1918-19 cover the first two-thirds of the novel. The final third picks up in 1925 and addresses the changes all of the characters have undergone as a result of the events of 1918-19. I won’t mention any of those details because there are several twists waiting for you.
First, let me say how much I enjoyed reading this book. It was poignant and moving for me. With that said, I have two small quibbles. The first is the tone. The novel is told in alternating first-person sections, through the perspectives of the mother Pauline, and the three daughters. The tone of it felt like I was reading Little Women. It was a little sentimental for me. But then when I stepped back and said, look, the three daughters are young (7, 13, and 15 at the start), and it is one hundred years ago, I let that go. I’d have to read other books by Meissner to compare.
The second quibble is that there are some big coincidences, and the ending is pretty tidy (even if it is the ending I wanted). I don’t want to be too bent out of shape about the coincidences. They are within the realm of possibility, and one of my favorite authors of all time, Thomas Hardy, certainly uses them as well. What I didn’t like, though, was the far-too-easy explanation some of the characters relied on to wipe away the extraordinary devastation of those years: fate. Characters struggling with the need to make sense of tragedy often results in a discussion of fate, free-will, and chance. Relying on fate to explain it all was a little too easy for me, however.
This is the only novel by Susan Meissner I’ve read, and I see that she has written nine others, so I’m eager to see if they’re historical works as well. I’d very much be interested to see how those go and if the tone’s different from what I objected to here. Overall, I was very happy with As Bright as Heaven. If you, like me, enjoy historical fiction, you may well enjoy it. This is an area of our history I’ve never read about and the story is a very compelling one.