Book Review: “As Bright as Heaven” reminds readers history is repeating itself

by Mackenzie Berry, Editor

In 2018, author Susan Meissner released a fictional story about a small family that comes face to face with the Spanish Flu in 1918. Unbeknownst to her, the story would become relevant in 2020 readers’ lives. 

As a historical fiction devotee myself, I picked up this book expecting a well-written war story, and while that desire was fulfilled, I had no idea that I would end up relating so closely to the events and characters.

Actually my mother, a librarian at the Walkersville Public Library, urged me to read it.  Who wants to listen to their mother’s recommendation?  Well, I’m glad I did.

As Bright as Heaven follows the Bright family: Thomas, Pauline, Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa, as they transition their lives from the small town of Quakerville, PA, to the city of Philadelphia during World War I. 

Meissner manages to tie together a story told from multiple perspectives. A mother grieving the loss of her infant son, developing a mindset and relationship with death while managing a household with three daughters. A young Willa who hardly sees the world beyond the tip of her nose and toys. A curious Maggie who becomes engulfed in her neighbors’ lives, and an intelligent Evelyn “Evie” who pours over books and aspires to become a doctor.

The Brights have unique challenges that any “modern-day” American could never wrap their head around: problems transition from finding space to dry tobacco leaves to roll cigars in Quakertown, to suppressing dangerous curiosity of a new home–in a mortuary. 

While many new opportunities such as better schools, new friends, and friendly neighbors come with the Brights’ life in Philadelphia, so does the nearness of living among the dead.

Pauline chooses to assist the mortician by doing the hair and makeup of the dead, which gives her ample opportunity to think about her recently dead son and how thin the line is between the living and the dead.

The issue that truly hit home to me as the reader, however, was when the Bright’s new life came to a screeching halt when faced with the Spanish Influenza pandemic.

Having dealt with the coronavirus for nearly a year, I found myself pouring over the characters how they deal with an issue that affected the world so greatly 100 years ago. 

While this story is told in a drastically different America, many of the events (historically accurate) I found to be extremely relatable: the abrupt closure of schools, avoidance of social interaction, mask requirements and concerns, as well as a infection and loss of friends and neighbors. It was these moments in which I related to the characters so strongly, as history has repeated itself. 

A story about a mortuary during a pandemic could be an opportunity for dark humor. Meissner however kept me engaged through the characters’ thoughts and relationships to the concept of death, as well as multiple side plots including the father going to war, young Willa battling the flu, and Maggie writing letters to a deployed neighbor.

It was comforting  to read of a world in which so many people make the best out of a bad situation. An example of this is Maggie’s rescue of an infant, during a delivery of supplies to a sick elderly woman. The family would raise the boy as their own, perhaps to seek the fill the gap of their late youngest child. 

I found myself struggling to put the book down as the story of this mysterious boy unfolded.

Many relationships also bloom in the later half of the book, as Evie develops a career, Maggie reconnects with old friends, and Willa begins to live a double life.

I will confess, most any reader can see the signs that will later lead to plot development, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the reading journey. Also, there were plenty of reading threads that were tied up, maybe a little too neatly.

Overall though, I found I simply couldn’t put this book down. I managed to finish the 400+ pages in less than 24 hours, and I highly recommend this story to everyone.  

You can check out As Bright as Heaven from any Frederick County Public Library, or find it at local bookstores.