________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 19 . . . . January 20, 2012


Yesterday’s Dead.

Pat Bourke.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2012.
249 pp., trade pbk., $11.95.
ISBN 978-1-926920-32-0.

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.

Review by Ruth Latta.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



They watched a pair of black horses round the corner, harnesses jingling, tall black plumes waving from silver head plates. The driver was sitting up tall on the bench of the wagon in his black suit and top hat. A small white coffin topped with a spray of creamy lilies lay in the back of the wagon. A second pair and wagon followed the first, this one carrying a longer gray coffin, also draped in lilies. A single automobile completed the procession.

A double funeral, thought Meredith, shivering, the white casket for a child, the gray one for a mother, maybe, or a father. People all over the city were dying from the Spanish Flu.

Meredith knew about death and funerals Papa, of course, and Granddad but the portrait of Mrs. Waterton looking down at them from across the hall reminded her that Jack and his family did, too.

They drew back into the house as Meredith closed the door. She prayed that the click of the latch would keep them safe.

When the Spanish flu strikes the Toronto household in which Meredith Hollings works as a maid, the 13-year-old rolls up her sleeves and copes, inspiring others to do their best in a terrifying situation. Though Meredith is fictional, the flu pandemic of 1918 1919 is not. Spread by the dislocations of World War I, this global disaster killed 20 to 50 million people worldwide. In Canada around 50,000 died (see Wikipedia).

     Pat Bourke's compelling novel opens with Meredith disembarking from the train that brought her from her Great Lakes village to Toronto. Because Meredith's widowed mother cannot make ends meet running the family store, Meredith must pretend to be 15-years-old, give up school and her dreams of teaching, and go to work. After an inauspicious beginning, in which her suitcase bursts open and her stocking is retrieved by a shoeshine boy, Meredith enters an Upstairs/Downstairs environment, the Waterton mansion in Toronto's upscale Rosedale district.

     The cook and chauffeur are pleasant, the butler critical and domineering. Widowed Dr. Waterton is kind but preoccupied. His teenaged son, Jack, is sociable; six-year-old Harry is a handful, and Maggie, the 13-year-old daughter, is self centred and snobbish.

     Remembering her mother's saying that "you never know what troubles someone might have," Meredith applies herself to her work. Tension builds through ominous talk of the Spanish influenza spreading from soldiers overseas to North America. Forrest, the amiable and resourceful chauffeur, takes seriously the threat of an epidemic, while Parker, the butler, dismisses it. When kindly Mrs. Butters, the cook, falls ill during Jack's sixteenth birthday party, the danger of contagious disease becomes immediate.

     Bourke captures the characters' stress and fear. Is little Harry coming down with flu, or did he just eat too many sandwiches? Should Mrs. Butters be taken to hospital? Dr. Waterton says no; the hospitals are filling up; she is better off being cared for at the house.

     Soon Meredith is holding the fort. Forrest begins volunteering at the hospital where Dr. Waterton works around the clock. Jack, who is helpful and supportive of Meredith, falls ill. Parker, too, is stricken. The mother of the shoeshine boy, Tommy, who worked part time for the Watertons, dies, as does one of Tommy's sisters. Eventually Meredith convinces Maggie to pitch in, and friendship buds between them.

     The title refers to the newspapers' daily lists of the dead, while also suggesting that "yesterday's gone." The war and the flu destroyed hierarchies and traditions. After the illness has run its course in the Waterton household, relationships have changed and Meredith's heroic contribution is recognized.

     Bourke's novel struck a special chord with me. An elderly friend of mine, now dead, told me that when she and her younger sister were under quarantine for the flu in Brantford, ON, they read the daily death lists, as Meredith does. My mother, also gone now, lost her infant brother to the flu. Two years younger than the fictional Meredith, she and three of her sisters aspired to become teachers. One worked for a while as a housemaid. Reading Bourke's novel was like listening to their stories.

     Bourke quietly conveys the impact of the Great War and the Spanish flu on our then fledgling country of just over 8 million people. Many of our ancestors were scarred by these tragedies. Yet the historical elements never overwhelm the human story of Meredith and her friends. Realistic dialogue, skilled pacing and evocative detail bring them to life and make the reader sorry when the novel ends. Yesterday's Dead truly deserves praise and prizes.

Highly Recommended.

History is important in Ruth Latta's novel, The Old Love and the New Love (ISBN 978 1 926945 70 5, baico@bellnet.ca).

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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