Here’s a rare example of a book that I not only never read as a kid, but never even heard of.
Book: A Time of Angels, Karen Hesse, 1995.
It’s a little strange I never heard of this one, since I read a lot of Karen Hesse—Out Of the Dust, The Music Of Dolphins, and A Light In The Storm being the big ones. But I came across this one at a used bookstore and I am a gigantic sucker for anything set during the Spanish flu epidemic so I had to get it.
Hannah is a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl who lives in Boston with her two younger sisters, Libbie and Eve, in the care of her Tanta Rose and Rose’s friend Vashti. The girls’ mother has been in Russia for years—originally having returned to care for her own elderly mother, then trapped there by the war—and their father having been drafted earlier that year. Tanta Rose loves them as much as their parents do, but Hannah misses her parents desperately, and loves and resents her little sisters in nearly equal amounts.
While they are poor, they manage to get by with Rose’s work, Vashti’s work as an herbal healer, and Hannah’s contribution selling newspapers every morning. Hannah has a boy she likes—Harry—and spends her time looking after her sisters and running errands when she’s not in school. She loves to draw and is a talented amateur artist. The other children in the neighbourhood—Rocky Keegan, who hates Jews, the Strauss siblings and their older brother Ovadiah the draft-dodger, and Harry—all recognize Vashti as the local healer, but Hannah doesn’t like her. Vashti ignores the girls or snaps at them, and is generally very cold.
But when flu starts seeping into Boston, Vashti is in very high demand. Harry’s father is the first person they know to fall ill, and Vashti can do nothing but make him slightly more comfortable before he dies. Within a few days, utter panic takes over the city, as people are dropping in droves. Vashti is almost run off her feet with people begging her for help, and it falls to Hannah to look after her sisters. They are under strict orders from Tanta Rose to stay in the apartment, but the little girls escape when Hannah is distracted, and they run down the street after being bored out of their minds. Hannah is frantic with worry before she finds them, and the little girls keep begging her for treats—pickles, cookies, a concoction called “cat pie” which is just pastry baked up with sugar and nuts and sounds really delicious. But she has no money, and herds the girls back to their apartment where they meet Tanta Rose, near dropping from sickness.
She has the flu, of course, and Hannah puts her to bed and shoves the little girls into the kitchen and tells them not to go anywhere near Rose. She flies off looking for Vashti, and when they return they find the two little girls curled up in bed together, sick as well. That whole night Hannah stays up with them and it’s awful to read—Hannah bargains with Libbie in her mind, and promises her everything she can think of: books to read all day long, as much cat pie as she can eat—that terrible bargaining with God and the universe when it seems like nothing else will work.
Tanta Rose dies, though, with Hannah and Vashti watching in horror as they can do nothing for her, and Vashti turns to Hannah and tells her to go, immediately. There’s a pretty strong subtext here that Tanta Rose and Vashti are partners, but I can’t tell if it’s in a lesbian sense or a platonic-life-partner sense, but given that Vashti is so dreadfully unhinged by Tanta Rose’s death, it’s a pretty strong sense. Anyway, Vashti packs Hannah off that very night—that hour—and sends her to Rose’s cousin in Albany, promising she’ll look after the little girls. Hannah has no choice, but she goes to the hospital and begs them to come in and look at her sisters—they can’t do anything but put her down on a list to have a doctor come and visit.
Then, one of the titular angels—a girl with black hair and strangely violet eyes—steers Hannah to the train station and puts her on board a train going north. Hannah begins to feel more and more miserable aboard the train, and they take her off the train at her station—not Albany, as she thought, but Saint Albans, Vermont. A Red Cross nurse takes her off the train and straight to the hospital, where she lies unconscious with fever with two weeks. When she wakes up, she realizes she still doesn’t know how she wound up in Vermont instead of Albany, and she’s lost her voice thanks to a secondary infection.
An elderly man with a Santa Claus beard, who has been volunteering at the hospital, takes a shine to Hannah, and keeps forcing her to drink apple cider vinegar to restore her to health. (I wonder if this is where the apple-cider vinegar craze came from!) His name is Uncle Klaus, and Hannah initially thinks he’s a German, but no one else seems to treat him as an enemy. Another woman, a Miss Grant, volunteers to take Hannah home with her, but Hannah demurs thinking that Miss Grant reminds her too much of Vashti. So Klaus takes her home to his farm, out in the country, to finish recuperating.
Klaus is friends with the local mailman, Ottiwell Wood, who comes by to see how “the invalid” is doing every day, but otherwise it’s a quiet little farm. Hannah is somewhat horrified to see him frying her pancakes and food in lard (which, keeping kosher, she cannot eat), and refuses anything but fruit. Klaus chalks this up to her illness and gives her a sketchbook, but Hannah vows not to draw anything again until she can be reunited with her sisters.
A few nights later, Klaus serves her ham for dinner, and Hannah confesses in writing that she is a Jew who won’t eat anything that isn’t kosher, and Klaus takes this with some equanimity, thinking only that he will be able to serve her fish instead. Once that is safely out of the way, they go into town to the butcher’s to get some fresh fish, where a little girl spits at Klaus for being “a dirty German.” And so there we have two strains of racism neatly dispatched with, which will not be seen again anywhere else in the book.
Hannah writes to Vashti, begging for information on her sisters, and gives it to Ottiwell to mail. She waits frantically for a letter, but every day Ottiwell comes by empty-handed. Hannah fills her time with Red Cross meetings, helping Klaus around the house, and learning to knit sweaters. She worries incessantly about everyone—her father, her mother, her sisters, her friends. Klaus tells her about his teenage years fighting in the Civil War, his mother’s recent death, and tries to impress on her that there’s nothing she can do other than wait. She tries to earn enough money to make her way back to Boston by collecting moose maple bark for the pharmacist, but it’s slow going. As October fades along, she grows more and more accustomed to Klaus, and together they go to look after Ottiwell when he comes down with the flu as well.
Klaus goes in to the barber after telling Hannah he cuts his hair off every year to sell it, but he’s doing it a little earlier than usual this year. Hannah thinks that he’s doing this because she’s a burden on him and offers him money, but he won’t take it. They go to visit Ottiwell, who is desperately ill and wasting away, who confesses to Hannah that he never mailed her letters to Boston—thinking that Klaus needed her more. Hannah is horrified and livid, and Klaus sends her home while he looks after Ott. She tells him that she can’t possibly stay, and the violet-eyed girl appears in the orchard to lead her to the train. Klaus gives her the money from his hair for her train ticket, and the violet-eyed girl leads her back to the train for Boston.
Hannah makes it back to Boston, to their old tenement, but she doesn’t see anything of her sisters’ there—only Vashti’s things. She panics, and flees to her friend Harry’s mother home, who slams the door on her, and then runs into Ovadiah. Poor Ovadiah has lost his mind and thinks Hannah is his younger brother Nathan, and takes her up to the roof promising that he’ll look after her. She begs him to realize that she’s not Nathan at all, but Ovadiah is thoroughly cracked. Hannah roams the city looking for any word of her sisters and finally runs into Vashti, and tries to get Vashti to do something for Ovadiah—but there’s nothing. And finally Hannah runs into Harry, who tells her that his mother has been looking after her little sisters and they’re safe and healthy.
That’s pretty much the end.
Rating: C. I dithered about this one a lot. I wanted to like it much more than I actually did—there was a lot going on that I don’t think was really dealt with at the end. There were plenty of threads of stories that never seemed to knit up into a whole one—Hannah’s parents, Vashti and Tanta Rose, Klaus’s story, the influenza epidemic, the war—and it seems less cohesive than it should be. The angel thing is somewhat shoehorned in as well, and from the book’s back piece I thought it was going to be a bigger part of the story than it actually was. There isn’t any closure at the end—and while I get the idea that not all stories have closure, I think it’s asking a bit much of a children’s/YA book to have none of the many varied stories have any ending at all! Other than, I suppose, Hannah finding her sisters again. Well, it’s decently written (with a few grammatical errors), and the characters are interesting in their way and humanly flawed, so I’ll give it a C for decency’s sake after all.