As Bright As Heaven follows the Bright family as father Thomas, mother Pauline, and their three daughters Evie, Maggie, and Willa make the move from Quakertown, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. We meet the family shortly after the death of their six-month old son Henry. Each family member is trying to cope with the loss of their beloved baby in differing ways. Around the same time Uncle Fred, Thomas’s unmarried uncle, extends an invitation for the family to move to Philadelphia where Thomas can assist Fred in his undertaking business and one day inherit the business as his own. After much discussion, Thomas and Pauline decide to make the move, leaving behind the tobacco business that has been in Thomas’s family for generations.
Upon their arrival in Philadelphia, the Bright family settles in although Pauline is finding it difficult to adjust. She feels that since the passing of her infant son, Death has been her constant companion. So in an effort to overcome her fears of death she takes on the job of making the deceased who pass through the funeral home cosmetically presentable for their final appearances. This seems to sooth her and soon she allows her middle daughter Maggie to assist her. Maggie, it appears, has no fear of death or the dying.
But ten months later, the Spanish Flu runs rampant. Even as it claims thousands of lives and the demand for caskets exceeds the supply. While Thomas and his uncle work to keep up with the numbers of deceased that arrive on their doorstep at all hours of the day and night, Pauline and Maggie volunteer to take food and medicine to the poorer parts of the city. On one of their trips, while Pauline is tending to a sick woman, Maggie follows the sound of a crying baby and finds a house where the dead mother is still abed, a young girl who appears to be at death’s door is on the sofa, and a baby is in a crib. The infant is dirty and unfed and will surely die if left on its own. Maggie bundles the child into her coat and takes it with her, whispering to the young girl that the baby is now safe.
Back at home, the baby is cleaned and fed; the authorities have been notified. But Pauline soon learns that even the orphanages are overloaded and there is no where to place the baby. Perhaps Pauline and her family could care for the child until such time as a family member comes looking for the child? Meantime, young Willa has contracted the Spanish Flu. Pauline concentrates her efforts on caring for her youngest daughter – never leaving her bedside until at long last the young girl turns a corner and her fever breaks. What Pauline and her family thought at first to be exhaustion on the mother’s part soon turns into the flu and it is Pauline’s life that is claimed.
We follow the story as the three sisters and their father, now in charge of the funeral home as Uncle Fred also succumbs to the flu, deal with the aftermath of the epidemic. Their lives have all been affected by the loss of family and friends as a result of the sweeping illness – especially the life of Maggie. All of this is set against the backdrop of the beginnings of World War I as well.
The Spanish Flu epidemic took my mother’s sister when she was still a child – an aunt I would never know. I must admit that I didn’t know much about the illness before I read this book other than it was horrible. But author Meissner does a terrific job of seamlessly weaving facts with fiction in As Bright As Heaven. She has created characters that you’ll become familiar with instantly. This reader simply couldn’t put down the book. This looks like another winner for Susan Meissner. And if other reviews are any indication, you’ll be totally absorbed in this story.
Rating: 5 stars
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