Karen Maitland’s medieval Company of Liars (Delacorte Press, 2008), which I read last month, is a welcome addition to my short list of historical novels on epidemics. I found the book haunting, thought-provoking, and hard to put down.
In the summer of 1348, when the plague first arrives in England from abroad, strangers thrown together by happenstance hit the road to escape infection. Like us in early 2020, they can only guess how far or how fast the contagion might spread. They meet locked doors and gates where they might have found welcome in healthier times. As they flee, they entertain each other with misleading stories of their lives. Which will catch up with them first, the pestilence or their lies?
The plague journey intrigues me because I think of epidemics as fixing people in place. The fictional storytellers in Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-1353) hunker down in a villa outside Florence to avoid the plague. Residents of the infected village in Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, set in 1666, agree to stay put so as not to infect others. Some of us during Covid are in quarantine or under lockdown orders.
Do shutdowns have a contrary effect of setting some people in motion? If so, I wonder who today’s pandemic travelers would be. Families roaming and sleeping in their vans? Students removed from closed dorms? Overflow from homeless shelters limited by social distancing? Is it possible to wall some in for safety without walling others out?
What delight to turn the calendar page to March! By some measures this is the beginning of spring. I haven’t seen a robin yet, but neighbors have.
When we went into lockdown almost a year ago, someone asked what I missed most. “Making plans,” I said. Normally by March I would be looking forward to family visits from afar, a long weekend in Door County, a day at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. With no idea how long the pandemic would tie us down—maybe two or three months, we feared—planning was impossible. A nebulous “when this is over” was no substitute for a scheduled treat.
Anticipated joy is the pleasure we expect from an experience in the future. Anticipatory joy is the happiness we get right now from planning a future pleasure. Some people get through the winter by pouring over seed catalogues. I used to map out summer vacations, more than I would ever take.
Active engagement in planning a good time can bring nearly as much happiness as when the plans materialize, and sometimes more. It reduces stress and elevates mood. The snow will melt, evenings lengthen, daffodils bloom, vaccinations expand, infections continue to fall. It’s not too soon to plan forest hikes and outdoor gatherings. There is hope.
Efficacy. Herd immunity. Mutations. Clinical trials. I've never seen more people pay more attention to vaccine science than with Covid. Less noticed is another important new vaccine, long after Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed the first polio vaccinations.
No vaccine is perfect. Poliovirus won’t paralyze you if you’ve had your Salk shots, but it can still pass from your gut to paralyze someone else—much as my Covid vaccination may still let me infect you. Sabin’s polio vaccine, taken by mouth, avoids this by destroying poliovirus in the gut. Where vaccination rates are low, though, harmless live virus from the vaccine can pass from person to person long enough to mutate and do harm—much as coronavirus mutates into new strains in the absence of herd immunity.
Hence the excitement about nOPV2, the novel oral polio vaccine type 2 set for use in 2021. It offers the best of both worlds, targeted to virus in the gut and genetically modified to avoid mutation. It may help end polio once and for all.
Image: Participants in an nOPV2 clinical trial lived four weeks in Poliopolis, a container village in Belgium. Photo credit: Ananda Bandyopadhyay, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
“Unprecedented!” We hear the word almost daily, alongside a steady stream of precedents. The 1918 flu. Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson. Protests in the 1960s. Polio vaccine development. Charlottesville’s Unite the Right. The disputed 2000 presidential election. And week after week, the Know-Nothings of the 1850s.
Conspiracy theories heightened the Know-Nothings’ zeal to protect the American way of life (native-born, English-speaking, Protestant) from Irish and German Catholic immigrants. Their nickname referred to members’ secrecy: “I know nothing.” They resented outsiders, elites, and expertise. To defeat a supposed plot to bring the U.S. under papal rule, they won local elections and used intimidation to keep Catholics from voting.
Violence by Know-Nothings erupted in at least seven major cities between 1854 and 1858. In Louisville’s election day riots of 1855, attacks on immigrant Catholic neighborhoods by Protestant mobs left 22 dead. Dozens were injured. Fire destroyed homes and businesses. Of the five participants later indicted, none were convicted.
From hyper-nationalism to conspiracy theories to deadly violence—what next? The Know-Nothings quickly passed into history with the rise of the new Republican Party. Within a few years of their demise, the nation was engulfed by civil war.
I reckon historians looking back on this period will have to reckon with deep national divisions, a pandemic reckoned from its arrival here over a year ago, a presidency some reckon the nation’s most corrupt, and an attack on the U.S. Capitol. Historians will reckon the pros and cons of an impeachment by elected leaders who call for a reckoning.
Reckon comes from an Old English term of Germanic origin meaning to explain, relate, or arrange in order. By the 1300s it also meant to count or calculate, and a reckoning was a settling of accounts. Account (from Old French, c. 1300) meant a detailed statement of money owed or spent. “Having to report on the finances” soon broadened to “having to answer for one’s actions,” or being accountable.
On account of this latter meaning, a historical account of recent events will have to take into account the debate on whether accountability is possible without a reckoning.
I have been watching the PBS documentary “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” by Henry Louis Gates. It shows a different picture from what I learned in West Virginia public schools long ago.
The Reconstruction of our textbooks was an era of military repression imposed on the devastated South by Radical Republicans bent on revenge. Greedy carpetbaggers from the North pushed former slaves into positions of power for which they had no relevant experience. Southern recovery began only after the North finally withdrew its troops.
Was it all a pack of lies? No; it was partly true, but not the whole truth. We viewed that era through the lens of poor Appalachian whites, resentful of Virginia’s ruling plantation owners. The lens of former slaves scarcely occurred to us: their urgent search for loved ones sold away under slavery, their thirst for education, their pursuit of opportunities, their hopes raised and later dashed.
To tell the whole truth is impossible. Life is too short, and you'll always have a selective lens. Which omissions matter? Perhaps the test of what you leave out is what happens when you add it back in. Does it merely add detail to the picture you already had, or does it change how you see the picture overall? In the case of Reconstruction, I am past due for a different set of lenses, or perhaps a whole new prescription.
Images: (left) ruins of Richmond after the Civil War; (middle) Thomas Nast cartoon of a carpetbagger; (right) fraternity raising Confederate flag at West Virginia University, 1967.
Jigsaw puzzle season is here again. Half the people I know are hunkered down at home, sheltering from winter and the pandemic, trying to bring order from the jumble of pieces spread out on a table. Trying to recreate the picture on the box lid.
My undergraduate thesis advisor, Dr. Marcia Colish, told me most of her historian friends liked to read mystery novels. I wonder if they work jigsaw puzzles, too. The three activities have much in common. Research historians assemble motley clues to construct a coherent story.
This describes the work of detectives, FBI agents, and investigative journalists, too. Bit by bit they uncover pieces of the plotting and preparation that led up to the recent attack on the Capitol. Unlike the jigsaw, this puzzle has no box lid to let us preview how all the pieces come together.
The wise men have traveled home from Bethlehem. With the passing of their feast day on Jan. 6, the holiday season is behind us. Catholic and some Protestant liturgies count these weeks between Epiphany and Lent as “Ordinary Time.” Though the phrase refers to ordinal numbers (second week, third week, etc.), I am drawn to its secular connotation of a post-holiday return to everyday life. Most years, anyway.
January so far has been anything but ordinary. Must I abandon my sense of ordinary time for 2021, or shall I base it on a different calendar? Coptic and many other Orthodox churches use the old Julian calendar, which runs 13 days later, ending the Christmas season on Jan. 19—tomorrow. The event they celebrate that day is not the arrival of the wise men at the stable but Theophany, the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
Living in Eritrea long ago, I went to a Timket or Theophany festival. The huge crowd was exuberant; Jan. 19 was clearly a major holiday. Perhaps for this year, I can welcome “ordinary time” as beginning the following day, Jan. 20. May it bring a fresh season of calm and relief.
Image: Coptic icon of the baptism of Jesus, or Theophany.
The reindeer-herding Sami of far northern Scandinavia sing a joik* to express and connect with someone or something. The joik belongs not to the composer or the singer but to its object. Descended from shamanistic practice, a joik doesn’t so much describe as conjure up.
A lonely man, missing his late parents, might joik them for comfort. A woman might joik a blizzard in all its power, using few lyrics or none. The Sami do not sing about a bear. They sing a bear.
In our language and culture, we may paint or sculpt a bear, or perhaps act or dance one. Why, then, can we only write or sing about it? It’s as though visuals and impersonations recreate their subject, while words hold it at a distance. As a writer, I yearn to bring my subject into being, like the Sami. I’d love to be able to write a bear.
* Rhymes with toy, but starts with a Y sound and ends with a K. Also spelled yoik.
Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering ‘it will be happier’ . . .”
― Alfred Lord Tennyson
Did you raise a glass of bubbly to greet the new year? Bubbles are frothy and playful, whether blown through a wand or drunk from a champagne flute. Prisms of bubbles turn sunlight into rainbows.
Metaphorical bubbles are risky, their surface tension too fragile or too tough. Some are insubstantial or illusory, destined to burst like an overpriced investment. Others function like gated communities, holding insiders in blissful ignorance of the world outside.
In this winter of social distancing, bubbles have come into their own. Our respective bubbles let us take off our masks and relax. Yes, the bubble may burst unless we tend it with care. Calling it a pod sounds more substantial, but bubble sounds more fun. May you savor your bubbly, frolic in the rainbows, and harken to the whisper of hope.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.