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Flu Season

From 'Bee Season' to 'Wickett's Remedy,' Myla Goldberg turns her fascinations into ours

By Rick Kleffel

Lydia Wickett, nee Kilkenny, the heroine of Myla Goldberg's new novel Wickett's Remedy, is a "Southie," an Irish lass from the bad part of Boston. When she meets the sweet but very shy Henry Wickett while working at Gilchrist's, a department store, he's in medical school. But wouldn't you know it; soon after they marry he drops out, and instead decides to dedicate his energies to creating a "patent medicine" called Wickett's Remedy, in reality a sweet concoction flavored by Lydia. Henry intends the letters that he sends those who buy the medicine to be the real remedy that he provides. For readers of Goldberg's latest novel, the balm is indeed in the writing.

Wickett's Remedy is at once complex but clear, filled with the kind of details that inform but don't clutter, and emotions that linger but don't cloud. Henry's plans unravel when he falls ill with the flu. But this isn't just any flu; it's the harbinger of an event that will kill more people than all the world wars put together.

"I was reading a New York Times article listing the worst pandemics of all time, and the 1918 influenza epidemic was one I hadn't heard of," author Myla Goldberg told Metro Santa Cruz. "Having always had a morbid streak, I immediately felt the need to look into it. And the more I learned, the more shocked I became that I had never heard of it before, and that it seemed to have been wiped from public memory. My fascination both with the epidemic and its effacement from mass consciousness provided twin engines that drew me into writing the book."

It's a powerful novel, seemingly simple and compellingly easy-to-read. As those around her begin to die, either in World War I or, more commonly, from the pandemic, Lydia finds herself drawn toward nursing the sick. But Goldberg has quite a bit more on her mind than depicting the huge human die-off. Wickett's Remedy is a complex creation, with an entertaining but unusually structured narrative. "While I was doing lots of period reading," Goldberg explains, "I came across John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy, in which he uses lots of different kinds of texts to tell his story. I was struck by the freedom this approach allowed--using it you could include lots of different voices and perspectives, which provides the story with a much broader canvas."

Goldberg's canvas is indeed broad, encompassing not just this life but the afterlife as well, in margin notes offered by those who have died. It's a wonderfully creepy effect, both charming and chilling. "The afterlife, as I see it in the book," Goldberg says, "is a void filled with sound, basically the sound of everyone who is now dead whispering their lives, their concerns or the unanswered questions that continue to nag at them." What's impressive is that Goldberg uses this device to keep the focus tight and the narrative entertaining. The dead help her stay on target, which is just as well, because she's got some interesting targets.

One of the more fascinating period details that Goldberg unearths unfolds when Lydia, not quite a nurse but interested in nursing, signs up to help fight the epidemic in an experiment on Gallup Island. "When I learned that experiments in flu transmission had been conducted on human volunteers, I was simultaneously fascinated and appalled. My writing tends to be driven by curiosity, and I really wanted to try to figure out what would lead a man to volunteer to be infected by a flu that was killing huge numbers of people."

Goldberg's writing clearly drives other people's curiosity as well. Her first novel, Bee Season, a powerful look at a modern family, is coming to theaters in an already-acclaimed adaptation. "It's both a wonderful and incredibly surreal thing," she enthuses. "Wonderful because they wrote me a very nice check and because it means more people will read the book; surreal because writing and reading a book is an incredibly personal and private experience and it's just so weird to imagine someone trying to translate that into a mass visual form like film."

But in Wickett's Remedy, Goldberg herself accomplishes the reverse of what she describes. She seamlessly transforms a remote and little-known-to-our-time mass experience into a compelling and intimate novel. Wickett's Remedy is not the cure for the common cold or the Spanish flu. Wickett's Remedy is writing--great writing, and that can be a cure for both body and soul.

Myla Goldberg, Sunday, Oct. 16, 7:30pm at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola; 831.362.4415.

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From the October 12-19, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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