by Myla Goldberg, appearing at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Thurs Oct 20, 7:30 pm
With Wickett's Remedy, Myla Goldberg has followed up her acclaimed debut, Bee Season (soon to be a major movie starring Richard Gere), with a story about the massive and nearly forgotten 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic in Boston. Set against the backdrop of that most pointless of global turf battles, WWI, Goldberg's portrayal of a deteriorating home front as a war occurs in distant lands rings true to the current daily zeitgeist.
The first half of Remedy serves to depict the Irish immigrant lifestyle in early 20th-century America; the second half finds a sizable portion of those immigrants falling down dead from the flu. Our plucky, well-intentioned heroine, Lydia, volunteers to assist in a semi-nefarious (and real) Tuskegee-esque government project to intentionally infect war deserters in order to understand the transmission of the deadly illness. Clearly heavily researched, Goldberg incorporates a wide variety of styles into Wickett's, and bounces freely between 1918 and 1993. The primary narration reads like a postmodern take on Horatio "Ragged Dick" Alger rags-to-riches novels of the time with their accompanying linguistic schmaltz, but the storyline is interspersed with newsletters of a soda pop historical society and period newspaper clippings, showcasing the sad minutiae and paranoia wrought by the epidemic, but made humorous by the era's overblown journalistic style. Goldberg's most interesting invention is notes in the margins in which the dead correct the faulty memories of the living with alternate accounts of events. This has the odd effect of making it seem as though the huge number of fatalities have created a portal allowing easier communication with the deceased.
A subplot about a stolen bunk medicine recipe and the machinations of the early soda industry (paralleling the actual history of Coca-Cola, which got its start on the medicine show circuit) doesn't go much anywhere. But Goldberg has created a portrait of an entire city with a vast cast of characters over a huge span of time; a story of a community as much as any individual, and Wickett's Remedy is an unusual and ambitious, if somewhat imperfect, novel about a nearly unknown subject.