Surprising parallels to today in novels about the plague

Judging from the number of reading lists returned by googling “pandemic books,” many readers aren’t looking for escapism during COVID.

A pandemic read was not my object on my first trip into the Harold Washington Library Center after it reopened a few weeks ago. Browsing in the Popular Library on the first floor, I noticed a couple of novels by Minette Walters, a Brit known as the queen of psychological mystery. Not until I returned home did I discover that the books aren’t mysteries but works of historical fiction about the Black Death’s rampage of Southern England’s Dorseteshire (as it was then spelled) in 1348–49.

The Last Hours was published in 2018 and its sequel, The Turn of Midnight, in 2019, before COVID, so Walters couldn’t have known how timely her foray into historical fiction would be. Modern medicine aside, it’s striking to see the parallels between 672 years ago and today.

• Both the Black Death, now known as the plague, and COVID were new, invisible, and mysterious. They both arrived, spread, and killed quickly. Decisions about what to do had to be made hurriedly.

• They weren’t confined to a small region. COVID has reached every continent but Antarctica. The plague spread from Asia to Europe, where it wiped out an estimated 50 percent of the population.

• They were spread by travel from Asia. The plague moved along the Silk Road, the land and sea network connecting China and the Far East with Europe. COVID originated in China and was carried from there by travelers.

• No one was invulnerable. The diseases killed rich and poor, the powerful and the lowest strata.

• Neither disease affected everyone the same way. Walters’s characters attempt to understand why the serf Gyles Startout survived when all his traveling companies died. COVID has affected people in vastly different ways ranging from no symptoms to death.

• Neither disease had an effective treatment.

• There was an expectation that life would not return to what it had been. “In twelve days, the world had changed beyond all recognition,” Sir Richard observes in The Last Hours before he dies.

• Quarantines were used and proven to work to keep people safe. In Walters’s story, Lady Anne, a woman ahead of her time, barricades the people of Develish in a manor house surrounded by a moat. Anyone exposed to the outside world, like Gyles Startout, must quarantine for 14 days before being allowed in. Everyone within the manor house survives, while other Dorseteshire towns are decimated.

• Superstitious people in the Middle Ages believed the plague was a punishment from God, and religious people thought that God would protect them. Evangelicals said the same thing about packing people into churches during COVID.

• Walters’s hibernating characters wonder how people would know when it’s safe to come out. Phased reopenings during COVID address the same question.

• People seek to know how other places have fared. A delegation of brave serfs leaves Develish to find out. The news comes to us today, with the same purpose: to inform decision making.

When someone in my book group suggested reading a novel about a pandemic, the rest of us demurred, saying that we were hearing enough about a depressing disease in real life. The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight are not depressing, however. They offer inspiring examples of people whose enlightened thinking and courageous actions ensured the survival of those who listened to them. There lies a lesson for us about listening to Anthony Fauci instead of Donald Trump.



“Trump’s nihilistic approach to the worst crisis of our time, which now includes pretending the virus doesn’t exist other than as a vehicle to demonize his enemies, is short-circuiting the wiring inside the heads of his Red Hat fanboys, who are now witnessing their own people succumbing to the virus and trying to somehow square this brutal reality with the “everything’s fine!” attitude coming from their addled messiah. No wonder they’re losing their shpadoinkle — again, facts and Trump-fiction are colliding in their heads and they’re powerless to recalibrate their bullshit detectors.”
— Bob Cesca, Salon


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  • thanks for the book tips. Let's see if we will learn from history.

  • Thank you for the reviews. I'm not sure I'll stick with the books, but they sound like something encouraging to try.

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