Wednesday, February 17, 2010
A Glimpse At The Next Pandemic? A review of Carla Buckley's The Things That Keep Us Here
The world as we know it, devastated by an influenza virus carried by birds? Don't say it can't happen. It can; it has. No, let me correct that. There has been no bird flu pandemic of yet, but there have been outbreaks of bird flu that caused deaths and left lingering disability in victims. It might have been about seven years ago, here in the Tidewater region of Virginia where I live, that there were reported cases of avian borne influenza that hospitalized a number of people. Some died; some remained in hospital for a long time then had to go through physical therapy to regain strength. I know because one such gentleman was in an aqua therapy class with me. He had been in the hospital almost a year!
Carla Buckley takes the notion that an avian borne influenza might be the next pandemic and explores how we would handle it in her debut novel, The Things That Keep Us Here. Buckley takes us inside the life of one family in middle America, the family of veterinary medicine researcher, Peter Brooks, his wife, Ann, and their two young daughters and lets us observe what happens when they are faced with the pandemic.
In a sense, the Brooks family is luckier than most. Peter Brooks is one of the first to be aware of the threat of the flu and is able to advise his estranged wife of precautions to take to help her and their children avoid exposure. However, things move faster than anyone anticipates and the Brooks family is just one more competing for increasingly scare resources like food, water and medicine.
To complicate matters, there is a mysterious tragedy in the past that has caused Peter and Ann to grow apart so that when conditions force Peter and his beautiful research assistant to seek shelter in the Brooks home, there is added tension. Crowd three tense adults and two bored and restless children into one house to isolate them from the risk of infection, and it's amazing that life continues as smoothly as it does.
Buckley does a great job of realistically describing the mad scramble for scarce resources, the sort of precautionary tactics that might be used to keep the risk of infection down and the make-do attitude families would need to adopt under such conditions. Once the realism of such details is firmly in place and the reader is fixed in a world where the electricity might never again come on, and a meal might be mustard on crackers, she hits hard asking what we would do to protect our family. Would we forsake a dear friend, a neighbor, because we are afraid that helping them might open the door to the risk of infection? Would we remain isolated or reach out and band together? Hard questions. Would we give up all notions of civility for reasons of safety and expediency?
It's a bleak scene that Buckley paints, to be sure. As a reader, I felt it keenly. What I had trouble with, or was unhappy with, was the ending. After the slow and steady buildup of the world of the pandemic, the post pandemic world seems to come rushing at us. Poof! It feels like a chunk of the novel is missing. The transition following a death in the family and the remainder of the family's retreat to a rural location lacks something. Suddenly, it seems, the remaining members of the Brooks family are again gathered at their old home but years have passed. Ann's earlier worries about the effects of the pandemic on her daughters' development are inadequately touched on. The old tragedy in the family has been revealed in an unsatisfactory way.
And what are the things that keep us/them here? Does Buckley refer to that which will allow us to survive in such situations? Or does this refer to Ann's return to the old house, the old neighborhood which has seen so much devastation? What would make her want to return? Loyalty to the family member who did not survive? A testimony to family, friends, and neighbors who died in the pandemic that life goes on? Decide for yourself when you read The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley.