Book Review: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner
Origin: Browsing goodreads
Genre: Historical fiction
Death is not our foe. There is no foe. There is only the stunningly fragile human body, a holy creation capable of loving with such astonishing strength but which is weak to the curses of a fallen world. It is the frailty of flesh and blood that causes us to succumb to forces greater than ourselves.
Summary: In 1918 the Bright family makes the move from their quaint tobacco farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania to the growing city of Philadelphia, where Thomas Bright thinks he can give his wife, Pauline, and their three young daughters, Evie, Maggie, and Willa, a fresh start and a better life by working as his undertaker uncle’s apprentice. With no son’s of his own, his uncle wants to pass the business to his closest nephew.
Before arriving, the family endures a tragic loss to their immediate family. Pauline sees the new beginning as an opportunity to move on in her own way. The perspective of the story is alternately told by Pauline and her three daughters. The girls come to like the changes that the bustling, big city has to offer them. Evelyn is the oldest at 15. She’s an intellectual and studious book worm and relishes in the access to the library and her new school. Maggie, 12, is the middle child. She’s empathetic, strong-willed, and very observant of what is going on around her. The youngest is Willa, she is 6. She’s quite young and innocent, but takes on a personality different from her sisters as she grows up.
Shortly after the Bright family arrive in Pennsylvania, the Spanish flu breaks out and takes the city by storm. The funeral home, nor the undertakers, are equipped to handle all of the bodies that show up at it’s door, and the local carpenters cannot build caskets fast enough. As death reaps every corner of the city, the Brights are once again faced by the notion of loss; however, during the height of the flu epidemic, the family stumbles upon a miracle, bringing home an infant orphaned by the breakout. All of a sudden, the family has a purpose.
The story details different relationships with love, mortality, and death. An intimate look inside the minds and hearts of different people at varying stages in their lives as they are shaped by the delicate experiences we, as humans, all have to come face-to-face with at some point in time.
My review: What a story! An easy five star rating from me. First and foremost, I had no idea that the Spanish flu epidemic even happened until I came across this novel. It is very apparent that the author took great and careful efforts to research the events of the time period. She chose Philadelphia as the setting for her story because it was one of the hardest hit cities in the United States. Taking that, and creating the plot perspective from inside an undertaker’s parlor was the icing on the cake for me. I enjoy the peculiar and almost unearthly setting of the funeral home. (Six Feet Under, anyone?!) In my normal life, what happens post-mortem goes unthought of; however, in her book, Meissner reminded me that death exists, and my body doesn’t have any place to go except the embalming room.
While Uncle Fred & Thomas Bright are working, the rest of the Bright family is dealing with their emotional experience with death. All of the girls coping in different ways. There is no right or wrong way to face the loss of someone. The author did an excellent job developing the personalities and separate lives of each of the girls, as well as the mother, Pauline. Since there are women of all ages in the family, it is easy to find someone to relate to.
If you enjoy historical fiction, this is a definite read for you. If you aren’t sure if you enjoy historical fiction, this would be an excellent book to taste-test the genre. It offers easy reading, but by no means does that deter from the talent wrapped up in the dialogues and character development.