Journal of the Plague Year—Can We Learn?

Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel DeFoe

Published 1722

Read Jan 2022

One of the book discussion groups to which this reader belongs chose this book for their consideration.  This reader first attempted to read a recent edition with illustrations but found it difficult to stay engaged with the relatively dry text.  Fortunately, an audiobook was located with a great reader which made the book much more interesting.  Certainly, one of the attributes of the book that doesn’t please this reader is that it is written in one long passage devoid of chapters or breaks. 

DeFoe suggests this book is the actual journal of someone who lived through the 1664 plague, perhaps an uncle.  DeFoe was only five at the time so had no direct knowledge of it.  He likely did a fair amount of research to put this material together which could appropriately be described as fictionalized journalism.

Of course, being in the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic made this book quite popular and it is quite interesting to see the parallels between this pandemic and that one and to consider what is different and why.

Similarities: 

  • A regular public record of data was available:  then:  Bill of Mortality gave deaths and number due to the plague was published by parish; now New York Times, CDC, departments of health give various statistics regularly
  • Distrust that the public records were really reliable
  • Hope that the disease would stay away from a person’s parish/country—but of course not the case
  • The disease spread across the city/country
  • Attempts to prevent the spread via some sort of lockdown—then:  people locked in their residences in London; now:  declaration of lockdown by various governing bodies
  • Attempts to keep immigrants/foreigners out and blame them for the disease
  • Lack of understanding of the method of spread at least during the early days of the pandemic
  • Lack of effective treatment but desperate attempts to apply various unsubstantiated methods of cure despite their dangers
  • More rapid spread in areas of high density
  • More impact on the lower income population—in London due to cramped living quarters and higher concentration of fleas and lice; in the US lower income filling jobs that must be done in person so having increased exposure in the workplace
  • Lack of full understanding of the disease leads individuals to form their own opinions about the disease

Differences:

  • Scientific and epidemiological tools are currently available to study the disease at various levels—population, organ, molecule—which allowed rapid vaccine and treatment development compared as well as (eventually) an understanding of means of transmission

Th author spends much effort and pages on speculation of the means of transmission based on his observations and analysis of the data.  He also is quite adamant that locking people into their homes once someone in the household was infected both increased the spread within the household and did little to reduce spread into the community as it was easy to circumvent those assigned to keep watch of the household.

It is disappointing, frankly, that our reaction to Covid-19 has not been informed by the various bouts of the plague nor the various bouts of other deadly infectious agents—SARS, Eboli, Influenza.  The population in this country and others seem destined to fail to learn from any of this history and to have similar outcomes over and over.  Perhaps those reading this book and accounts of the 1918 influenza and other infectious disease pandemics might help break this cycle.  This reader isn’t convinced that will happen.  Those in the battle of treating the disease or dealing with various economic fallout of the pandemic have limited time to share their learning and will likely be fully consumed to getting their respective responsibilities back to somewhat normal as the pandemic winds down—-unfortunately. 

All the Little Live Things—An Under-Appreciated Master Work from Wallace Stegner

All the Little Live Things

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1967

Read Jan 2022   

While some descriptions of this book say something like “Joe and Ruth Allston return….”, the reverse is actually true.  This book was written in 1967 and the first book in which Stegner introduces us to Joe and Ruth Allston.   In this book, Joe is very recently retired as a literary agent.  The Spectator Bird was written in 1976 and Joe is seven or eight years into retirement.  The comment about them returning really reflects the situation that was true for this reader—hungry for more from Stegner after recently reading The Spectator Bird which won the National Book Award and Crossing to Safety (published 1987) which is also well known, and have already read The Angle of Repose (published 1971) which won the Pulitzer Prize, this reader turned to this book which received less fanfare but which, in this reader’s opinion, is even better than The Spectator Bird

Joe and Ruth Allston have recently moved to a currently rural area about 30 minutes from a university town in California.  They have purchased land from a developer who bought part of a farm that is still owned by one of their neighbors.  Joe and Ruth have built a house and are now working on landscaping.

The book opens with our narrator, Joe, lamenting about the death of Marion.  He is clearly impacted by this death—she was too young, too full of life, and someone he clearly loved.  After this prologue the book goes back to about the time Joe and Ruth meet Marion.  But first we are introduced to Jim Peck, a bearded philosophy student.  He seeks permission to camp on part of their property.  They grant it and he builds a tent platform on the other side of the creek from their home and a bridge to reach it that requires great balance and dexterity to cross.   Marion and her husband and young daughter buy and move into a house down the hill from and on the same side of the creek as the Allstons.

The Allstons become fast friends with Marion and her family quite quickly.  Marion chastises Joe for killing insects and animals he declares pests.  She loves all living things.  Her love of life is dazzling and engaging.  In contrast, Joe Allston becomes increasingly annoyed with Jim Peck as he expands his camp to include a tree house and as he invites many other young people to hang out with him day and night.  Jim Peck has tapped the Allston electric and water lines and even puts up a mailbox. Ruth is less annoyed and suggests Joe is just railing against the societal changes that young people are driving—free thinking and free love among them. 

This reader won’t share more of the story but will comment on aspects that make this book an even better one than The Spectator Bird in this reader’s humble opinion. 

First some similarities.  Both books have wonderful descriptions of the surroundings and of the events that occur.  In this book Stegner’s love of nature is very evident.  Joe’s descriptions of the antics of the birds that occupy hours of his time, of the battle he rages with the gopher who wants to undermine his garden, and of the tragic event that occurs on the bridge that all use to cross the creek to reach their property are all quite remarkable.  Both books comment on the encroachment of developments into land previously farmed.  Both books deal very well with the emotional transformations that accompany retirement.  Both books reveal the loss of the Allston’s only son by drowning in a surfing accident—or was it an intentional act—and the guilt Joe feels about this.   

Both books demonstrate Stegner’s value of marriage.  Joe loves Marion but only in a friendship way.  He comments she is almost like a daughter he wishes he would have had.  There is never anything untoward about their relationship but it is clearly special and he shares with Marion feelings about his life that he may never have shared with Ruth.  In The Spectator Bird, Ruth was becoming concerned about Joe’s feelings for Astrid and he admits to the reader that had he not been married he would have considered a relationship with Astrid.  But he was married so that consideration was fully off the table. 

So– what is different.  The Spectator Bird reveals a hidden part of Astrid’s life that has some intersection with Joe’s mother that is rather spectacular and something that a modern Netflix series could use for a very engaging series. Perhaps this is an aspect that made this book so much more popular than others he wrote.  All The Little Living Things has nothing similarly spectacular although there is an out-of-wedlock pregnancy that results from “free love” practiced in Jim Peck’s camp and which Joe disfavors.  In the end, much of this book is about a man wrestling with the fact that some of his long-held values are being challenged by a changing society—something widely experienced in the 1960’s.  Simultaneously Joe is experiencing a second loved one following a path he really doesn’t want them to take and he can’t make them change course.  The latter is a universal situation.  Sons and daughters sometimes take different paths than their parents hoped for and sometimes there are devastating consequences for all.  Friends make choices we don’t want them to make.   Stegner beautifully tells us one man’s trials and reminds us that we can’t always have things the way we want them to be. 

Crossing to Safety—Stegner’s Comments on Marraige and Ambition

Crossing to Safety

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1987

Read Nov 2021

Larry Morgan narrates the story of the friendship between he and his wife, Sally, and Sid and Charity Lang.  He begins with their arrival to Sid and Charity’s Vermont camp as they’ve been summoned there by Charity who is dying of cancer.  Larry sweeps back to the beginning of their friendship which begins when Larry and Sally come to Madison, WI in the early 1930’s for a one-year contract Larry has to teach in the English department of the University of Wisconsin.  He and Sally have moved from California and have very few resources so they count their pennies very closely.   Sid is also an instructor in the English department.  Sid and Sally have been in Madison for six years hailing from the east, Ivy league schooling and money.  Larry and Sally are invited to a dinner party at Sid and Charity’s home and their lives are transformed by the evening when Sid and Charity embrace them as bosom friends. 

Larry wants to be a successful writer and pours all his energies, when not dealing with his teaching responsibilities, into writing and submitting his work for publication.   Sally is supportive but also grateful for her friendship with Charity so that she has someone with whom to spend time while Larry focuses on his work.  Sally and Charity have bonded quickly as expectant mothers.  Larry’s focus pays off and some of his work is published that year but budget constraints due to the Depression means Larry can’t be offered another contract by the university.  Charity is adamant that Sid earns tenure as Charity’s father has done and has little patience with Sid’s desire to write and publish poetry.  The English department also can’t give Sid tenure this year which means he has also lost his job.  Sid and Charity and their kids return to the Lang family camp in Vermont for the summer and take Sally with them while Larry teaches a summer class before he joins them. 

Larry’s narration tells of the friendship that survives through four decades although Larry and Sid’s paths diverge and both couples face a number of difficult times.  Larry does become a successful writer but Sally contracts and survives polio and is left with serious physical disability.   Sid eventually gains a tenured position but feels he has failed his domineering wife who has followed in her mother’s footsteps of bossing her husband around and orchestrating everything that happens in the household.

While this is a novel about a lasting friendship, it may primarily actually be a book about marriage.  Here we see two marriages that survive despite their challenges and the pressure they put upon the respective marriages.  A. O. Scott wrote in a New York Times article  “Stegner’s settings range from academia and the literary world to mining camps and boomtowns, but his most consistent subject is marriage, represented in a mode more epic than romantic. Monogamy, with its crags and chasms, is the most salient and imposing feature in his imaginative landscape, the human undertaking around which all the others are organized.”   The Lang’s marriage is clearly not always a happy one but neither Sid nor Charity could conceive of not remaining married.  Larry reveals that he is dependent on Sally as much as she is on him.   He can’t imagine life without her.  In this, his last novel, Stegner shows us lives lived within the bonds of marriage, something he clearly reveres.