In 2000, Myla Goldberg created a nationwide sensation with her first novel, Bee Season, later made into a film starring Richard Gere. Not one to rest on her laurels, Goldberg recently told an interviewer that she wanted her second novel “to be as humanly different from ’Bee Season’ as possible.” She explained, “I think it’s really important to push yourself into as many different directions as possible.” The result was Wickett’s Remedy, a highly original work whose approach is indeed different from that of Bee Season.
In Wickett’s Remedy, Goldberg re-creates the world of the 1918 epidemic of Spanish influenza, which by various estimates killed between twenty-two million and fifty million people worldwide and from five hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand people in the United States. According to Goldberg, who thoroughly researched the subject for her novel, the epidemic killed more Americans than were killed in all twentieth century wars combined. Until the recent publication of several nonfiction works, the 1918 epidemic had virtually faded from public memory. That, Goldberg speculates, is because it coincided with, and was overshadowed by, World War I, which was “manmade,” whereas the disease was beyond human control. “I think when you can’t control something,” she says, “the instinct is to forget about it as soon as possible.”
The inability of medical science and government policy to control the disease, or even fathom its origin, is a prominent, and skillfully conveyed, theme of Wickett’s Remedy. Goldberg’s literary methods are a large factor in the novel’s originality. With them, not only does she communicate how swiftly the epidemic caught the nation unaware, but she also creates impressive portraits from the era: the men’s clothing store where her protagonist works; a hospital full of dying flu victims; a research facility where medical workers grope for the cause and a solution; and, simultaneously, the public’s feverish enthusiasm for the war “over there.”
Goldberg creates this tapestry by weaving together several techniques: the core story; articles culled from newspaper archives of the period; marginal “comments” on the story from the collective voice of the dead; cheerleading memos from the business firm whose founder pirated the “remedy” of the title and turned it into soda pop. All of this combines to give the novel a large scope in a comparatively small space326 pages.
As with any novel, at the heart of Wickett’s Remedy is the story involving its human characters. Lydia Kilkenny, a young Irish American woman of South Boston, has resolved to leave “Southie” for a better life. After graduation from school, “when her girlfriends found jobs behind sewing machines,” the ambitious Lydia goes to work in the stockroom of a department store, where she learns everything she can about the operation. When a sales position opens up in the men’s clothing department, she is prepared. Unexpectedly, when working in that new capacity, she meets Henry Wickett, a shy young medical student who charms her with eloquent love letters. Lydia marries him, convinced that her future is now secure.
Soon after the wedding, however, Henry abruptly quits medical school, determined to pursue journalism instead. To Lydia’s distress; he volunteers for the Army, expecting to be assigned as a war correspondent. When he fails the physical examination, the insouciant Henry changes his plan: He will now sell a home remedyWickett’s Remedyby mail order and send a healing letter with each bottle. To him, of course, the letters are the real point of the enterprise. On a handshake, to supplement the mail-order operation, he grants one Quentin Driscoll exclusive permission to market the remedy to drugstores. This plan, too, is stymied when Henry suddenly dies, an early victim of the still-unrecognized flu epidemic.
Devastated, Lydia returns to her close-knit family in South Boston, only to find the unstoppable flu cutting down many of her neighbors and family members, including her beloved brother. One day, carrying a sick neighbor boy to the hospital, she discovers that she can make a difference in the world through simple acts of kindness, such as bringing water to a dying patient. In volunteer work at the hospital, she finds a new vocation, and though not quite a real nurse, she lands a nursing assignment on Gallup’s Island in Boston Harbor, where medical researchers plan to experiment with human subjects to learn how influenza is transmitted.
The human subjects are Navy convicts who have volunteered in order to escape life in the Deer Island Naval Prison. Lydia quickly realizes what is happening...
(The entire section is 1951 words.)