As a fan of Susan Meissner, I had no doubt that her tale of World War I and the crippling Spanish flu would be a page-turning tale. I was not disappointed. Even though this tale of a family in Philadelphia suffers greatly and tragic events fill the pages, I was still drawn to this story. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective which gives the reader a broad view of how one small decision can change the trajectory of a family forever.
In “As Bright as Heaven,” it’s January 1918 and the Bright family has just buried their sweet infant, Henry, after an incurable heart condition. Pauline and her husband decide to join her husband’s uncle in the funeral home business. This fairly new idea of funeral parlors and embalming is unheard of in their rural area, but Pauline is no longer afraid of death and has this desire to be closer to it. What she doesn’t know is how surrounded by death she and her family will be.
Pauline and her three daughters tell their family’s story. Evelyn, the bright teenager who is thrilled by the huge library in Philadelphia. Maggie, the slightly younger caretaker of her siblings isn’t afraid of what is behind the doors in the embalming room. Willa, the youngest, isn’t happy with all the rules in this new house and doesn’t understand why her family had to leave the countryside, her grandparents and live in a funeral home. As the family begins to adjust to living with Uncle Fred, to the dead bodies in the other side of the house, and the hustle and bustle of the city, their father decides to help the war efforts. Pauline is left behind to run the funeral home with Uncle Fred. There is word of a devastating flu moving swiftly through the city, but no one realizes the tragedies that lie ahead as bodies start to pile up outside their door.
You would think a story of war and a flu that took 12,000 lives in one city would be too full of sadness to read. Just when you think this family can’t bear any more sadness, another layer is added, yet you keep reading because you have to believe there is hope for each of them. You have to believe that in the depths of a horrific disease, something will soon change. It does when Maggie finds a baby and saves him from certain death. This baby is the light in their dark tunnel. As Philadelphia emerges from disease, so too the Bright family must emerge from their own personal tragedies. Their story and resilience amazes and reminds you that there can be happiness in even the worst of times.
Meissner expertly takes readers into the minds of her characters whether they are an 8-year-old girl full of fear and anger or a mother who can’t shake the shadow of death following her every day since she buried her baby. The story moves swiftly because we are eager to hear the next character’s voice. We wonder how Maggie is adjusting to her neighborhood crush leaving for the war or how Pauline is grappling with caring for her daughters and running an overflowing funeral home while trying to keep the disease away from her family.
I was fairly unaware of the devastation the Spanish flu had in our country let alone Philadelphia. Meissner paints a vivid portrait of the awful events that took place and how it didn’t discriminate ... hitting the slums and the richest families equally. Fear seeps off the pages and grief grabs you by the throat making it hard to believe any family could suffer this much. Fans of historical fiction and family stories will find Meissner’s tale one they will want to talk about with others.