If I Die Before I Wake

Apparently, it’s CanCon November! All Canadian content, all the time. Here’s something nice and cheery just in time for Remembrance Day.

If I Die Before I Wake: The Flu Epidemic Diary of Fiona Macgregor, Toronto, Ontario, 1918, Jean Little, 2007.

fiona macgregor

Let’s get one thing straight: Jean Little is a Canadian treasure. If you’re American, like I am, and didn’t discover her works until later, you are absolutely missing out. She’s written several Dear Canada novels and they’re all spectacular, a ridiculous number of other great books, and teaches children’s literature at Guelph. She’s amazing and touches on really horrible issues and problems, but she writes so beautifully and clearly—there are some novelists who write about child abuse or disabilities for a children’s audience, but they can be stilted or awkward—for Jean Little, never. She handles everything with such a deft and beautiful touch.

That being said, this is an incredibly hard book to review. I think as a rule Dear Canada books tend to shy away less and are less flinching when it comes to illness and death, and this is a terrific example. While in Dear America books death comes in the background or to a tertiary character, in DC books there’s no hiding from it. It’s more realistic, in its way, but it’s also much more difficult to read. This book focuses on the Spanish Flu epidemic, but there’s another one that touches on the polio epidemic in the 40s that I’ll get to eventually, and it is brutal and totally straightforward. The protagonist is twelve years old, but honestly, I would have had a tough time with this book at age twelve.

Fiona, who as I’ve said is twelve, lives in Toronto with her family—her twin sister Fan, her older twin sisters Jemma and Jo, her little brother Theo, her father and his mother (Grandmother), and her late mother’s twin sister, her Aunt Rose. Fee, as her family calls her, loves reading and writing and riding her tandem bicycle with Fan, but frets because she and Fanny aren’t much alike—Fan likes to cook and do chores and is great at math, but doesn’t like to write. None of them like their grandmother much, because she is elderly and domineering and moved in without any warning, but Fee’s father has been “different” since her mother died, and doesn’t have the heart to kick out his widowed mother.

Although the book is set in 1918, it is not a war novel. It’s part of their lives, certainly, but in the sense that they know people who have died in the war, and Fee’s class goes to sing at a soldiers’ hospital. Otherwise it’s just an omnipresent, in-the-background, ongoing thing in the newspapers. The book starts out in August, and shortly after that, they manage to acquire a Great Dane whose owner died very suddenly. His name is Hamlet (because he’s a Dane, get it?), which I love. Grandmother mentions offhandedly that she met a woman by the atrocious name of Dulcie Trimmer, which is going to come back, but at the time, no one thinks anything of it. Jo is beginning medical school at the University of Toronto in the fall, and Jemma is planning on going to Normal School (i.e., teacher’s college) to become a primary school teacher.

It isn’t until the middle of September that anyone even hears about the Spanish flu, when Aunt gets a letter from a friend of hers who lives in Quebec. But it doesn’t worry any of them over-much, and Fee is more concerned that Jo and her friend Carrie are constantly taunted and abused for going to medical school rather than becoming nurses. By October, though, the flu has definitely arrived in Ontario, and the first deaths are beginning to appear. Aunt decides that none of them will be going to school, and they begin to receive word that churches and pool halls and what have you are closing. Fan’s father and aunt want to send them away, but Jemma and Jo both flatly refuse to leave Toronto and their classes, and Theo isn’t allowed to leave the house. So Fee is sent off to her grandparents’ in Mimico, and Fan is sent off to their aunt and uncle near Sunnyside. (Hilariously, in the book Mimico is “country,” and their grandparents have a farm, but today Mimico is just a neighbourhood in Toronto, and Sunnyside is more or less a park area.)

Fee has never been separated from her twin before, and is more upset than she thought she would be. Her grandparents begin keeping the newspaper from her, since they’re full of terrible news about the flu, and the only news she really receives are letters from Fan. But she worries ceaselessly, and begins to worry even more she gets a note from her little brother asking “Can dogs get Flu?” But attributing it to “twins know when their other half is in trouble,” Fee begs and begs her grandparents to tell her. But they won’t, and Fee opts to go without even telling them, but her grandfather sees her and gives her a ride into town. When she gets there, she discovers that Fan is indeed home, and terribly ill with the flu. “Her face had turned a greyish colour,” Fee writes. “She has lost pounds. Her face is all hollow and a dark colour. A bluish grey.”

Fan can barely breathe, and Fiona refuses to leave her bedside. She reads to her and stays up at night, listening to the horrible rasping breathing, and urging her to continue breathing. When her fever finally breaks, she can barely believe it, and thinks Fan is dying after all. “I knew, then and there, that if Fan had died, half of me would have died too.” But Fanny gets better—very slowly—and Fiona gets frustrated with her for being so grouchy and demanding on her sickbed. Jo tells them all terrible stories of houses she’s visited that are so incapacitated by the flu that small children are left to fend for themselves (or worse, are the only survivors), and Fiona notes that she’s changed somehow since being forced to see all this horror.

Fanny is still recuperating, slowly, when the war ends and the entire city of Toronto turns out to celebrate. This is, in retrospect, a poor decision by almost everyone, because there’s almost no possible better vector for flu than a bunch of really happy people celebrating together and shouting and breathing on one another. Jemma and her friend fly out the door and spend the entire day in the square downtown, partying and “kissing and being kissed,” and doesn’t return until that evening. She’s fine for one day, fine for two days, but on the third day she comes down with what Aunt optimistically terms “a cold,” but quickly worsens. Two days later she’s desperately sick, and not long after that she’s as sick as Fan ever was.

“The doctor told Father he should prepare himself for the worst. He said he had not seen a patient recover once their face became almost black like Jemma’s. He shouldn’t have said such a terrible thing…Father looks like an old man….We are all just waiting. The whole house is filled with Jemma’s terrible struggle to breathe. But we must still hope. I crept to the door and peeped in. I wish I had not. The girl I saw was not Jemma. Jemma had gone.”

Jemma dies. Jo refuses to come out of their room. Aunt holds it together until the funeral and begins sobbing horribly, and at home Fiona gets into terrible trouble for screaming at Dulcie Trimmer “Why did you come here? You’re not a relation. Nobody wanted you here!” None of them even know what to do with themselves—they drag around the house like ghosts, except for Theo, who is only five. Jo says Fiona is the only one who understands, because she almost lost her twin, too.

Fiona thinks that Theo deserves a real Christmas, since he’s only five and so far he’s missed both Thanksgiving and Halloween thanks to the flu. They manage to get it together enough to get Theo two goldfish in a bowl and a few other gifts, but Fee writes that “Christmas was really one of the saddest days of my whole life.” Her father gets Jo a locket with Jemma’s photograph inside, but nothing can really manage to erase that horrible empty, aching feeling they all have. Even when they go to a friend’s house for New Year’s and have a party, there’s a sense of loss and pain that seems to shadow over everything they do.

In the new year, Fee is putting away clothes for her aunt when she finds a framed photograph of her father, addressed to Aunt, with the inscription “This is to say I will love you, all my life long.” She is completely baffled at this—since, after all, her mother was her aunt’s twin sister, so….what’s going on? It’s disturbing, in its way, because it’s always disturbing to recognize that your parents had lives before you came into the picture. But this falls a bit by the wayside when a woman tries to steal Theo right out of their yard, completely deranged by losing her son, about Theo’s age, to the flu. This terrifies Fiona, who was supposed to be watching him, and when she has hysterics about it Jo slaps her in the face and tells her to stop being such a selfish pig.

In February, there’s a month-long break, and Fee writes that she had a long bout of what we would call depression—“I still could not make myself feel alive inside.” Her aunt forces her to get up after she spends a couple of weeks in bed, and when Fee is helping to serve her grandmother and Dulcie Trimmer, she ends up getting angry with her grandmother and slams the door. The glass pane shatters and gashes her arm open. (Say what you want, but there is never a dull moment in this book.) She ends up with stitches, and Fan has to help her out after Fiona spent all that time helping Fan recover from the flu.

Afterwards, when Fee is putting away clothes in her father’s room, she sees a row of journals on his bookshelf that she’s never noticed before. She becomes convinced that the truth about her father, mother, and aunt is in those journals, but she can’t very well just go in there and raid the bookshelf. Things come to a head when Grandmother asks Aunt right at the table what she’s going to do since the kids are growing up, and the kids pretty much lose it. Fee decides she can’t stand things going on this way, so skips church and steals a journal and finds out the truth. Her father fell in love with her aunt first, spent a lot of time with both girls, and then teased Rose by saying he didn’t know which sister to marry. Rose didn’t take this well, told him she certainly wasn’t going to marry a man who didn’t know his own mind, and Fee’s father went off and proposed to Ruth—who was beyond happy and said she had been waiting for him to speak. So they got married and had five kids while Rose went off to teach in Alberta, and came back to nurse Ruth through her final pregnancy and stayed after her death, three days after Theo’s birth. Wow. Heavy stuff. Also, I desperately want to read THAT book, it sounds FASCINATING.

Fee writes a note to her aunt, telling her what page in the journal to read, and two days later, the bomb: her aunt and father announce they will be getting married that Saturday, and to tell no one! They whisk off to the church, with only the children and two of their friends in attendance, and are married. Fee’s grandmother is incredibly astonished and upset and announces she will be moving out—so they get their happy ending, sort of, after all.

Rating: A. I really love this book. It’s unfailingly honest in depiction of a terrible epidemic and death in the family. Fiona is so alive she almost leaps right off the page, and her family is warm and funny and flawed and real as real can be. None of the characters are perfect—none of them are wholly evil. I even really enjoy the subplot about the romance between Fiona’s father and her aunt, and like I said, I want to read an entire other book about that. It sounds great.

Why this book for Remembrance Day? It isn’t a war book. But the Armistice is a key kickoff point for disseminating the flu, and it’s the entire reason why Jemma dies and drives the entire second half of the book. It’s shocking to me that the Spanish Flu is barely even mentioned in history classes any more, let alone discussed as one of the greatest pandemics on earth, ever. I wish this book was taught in all schools. It completely overshadowed the end of the war in a lot of communities, and I don’t have any idea how it got forgotten so completely.

And get your flu shot!

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