Voices from the Pandemic, by Eli Saslow****

Eli Saslow is the journalist that wrote Rising Out of Hatred, the story of former White Supremacist Derek Black, in 2018. When I was offered the chance to read and review his new book, Voices from the Pandemic, I jumped on it, because I like this author a lot. Once I had it, I avoided it like the plague (pardon the reference) for a couple months, wondering just what I had been thinking, to sign on for something like this. In the end, I am glad to have read it.

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy.

Saslow tells us in the introduction that he expected to become depressed, perhaps numbed, by all of these interviews, but ultimately was galvanized by “their empathy, their insight, their candor and emotional courage.” Fair enough, but an awful lot of these stories are gut-wrenching. For whatever reason, he chooses to start with some of the most horrific ones, but as we work our way into the book, there are several that are not about the excruciating, grim death of a loved one, but are interesting for different reasons. There are stories of essential workers, of coroners, and medical professionals. One that has stayed with me is that of a middle aged man, ex-military, who is finally compelled, when everyone in the household loses their livelihoods, to visit a food bank. He gets there two hours before it opens to be on the safe side, and discovers that there’s already a huge, hours-long line.

My favorite story is that of Bruce MacGillis, a wily old man that barricades himself in his room in his nursing home, lets nobody in, throws open his windows in subfreezing weather, and stuffs towels underneath the doorway to keep out other people’s germs. He ends up being one of two residents that are spared, out of eighty-nine residents. (My notes say, “Hell yeah!”) On December 28, he lets a nurse come in to administer his vaccine. I hope that man lives to be a hundred.

There are some stories by vaccine deniers, mask avoiders, included here, but if you are among them, you probably won’t enjoy this book. It leans heavily toward science, and away from conspiracy theories.

After I’d procrastinated reading this thing, I checked out the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons to give myself a leg up. I thought it might be easier to hear these stories while I was also engaged in some other task, so I fired it up while I was slicing bell peppers and marinating meat. If anything, it was worse that way. Well—to be fair—worse, and also better. There’s a separate reader for each story, and the hard ones are read with such searing emotion that it makes them all the worse. The saving grace is that each person’s story is concisely told, so there was only one time that I hit the stop button and fast-forwarded to the next one. At the outset, I only listened for a few minutes at a go, and then turned to listen to another book, something light and fictional, to restore my mood. By the second half, I no longer needed to do that.

The book only covers the 2020 portion of the pandemic, but I’m not sure it would sound much different had he waited to include the whole horrible thing. (It will be over someday…won’t it?) Recommended, for those that can do this.

Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts*****

“Don’t let anybody steal your marbles.”

Maud Gage Baum is one of a kind. The godchild of Susan B. Anthony, child of first-wave feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage and an indulgent, progressively inclined father, she is unhampered by many of the traditional expectations that shackled women born during the American Civil War. But though her parents encourage her to develop her mind and talents, they have little prepared her for the wider world that greets her, and when she arrives at the women’s dormitory at Cornell University, she is considered peculiar by her classmates. She is a lonely young woman, until her roommate sets her up with Frank, an eccentric, clever man whose whimsy equals her own. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 12, just in time to be wrapped in red paper and given to the bookworm you adore.

Maud’s story comes to us from two different time periods, one of which starts in 1871 during her childhood and moves forward in linear fashion, and the other in 1939, when she comes to the set where The Wizard of Oz is being filmed to fulfill her beloved Frank’s dying wish; he has asked her to look after Dorothy.  And though it initially means gaining access to the studio through duplicitous means, Maude befriends the unhappy but massively talented Judy Garland, and advocates for the intention behind her character, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

I love this book hard. It has an unusual appeal, not a thriller nor a grab-you-by-the-hair page turner, but rather a strangely comforting novel, one that offers us the chance to follow Maud to another time and another place. I read several books at a time, and this one became my bribe to myself, the reward I could look forward to after completing increments of other books that I wouldn’t abandon, yet didn’t love as I did this one.

How many times have I reviewed a book favorably yet with the caveat that it isn’t bedtime reading, and maybe not good for mealtime either? Listen up. This one is good for both. It will make you appreciate your meal as you move through the hungry years of the Depression, and as you read about poor Judy being starved with lettuce and cottage cheese, her penalty for reaching puberty when the studio wanted her to look like a scrawny waif. And at bedtime, even the sorrowful passages are wonderfully hypnotic.

The love story between Maud and Frank is one for the ages, and without Letts, who would have guessed? Midway through the story I felt the need to know how closely the author kept to the truth, and I skipped to the notes at the end. I am delighted to say that this writer did a great deal of research, and she tells the reader specifically where and when she departs from historical fact for the sake of the story.  The way that the character of Dorothy is invented, based on a string of actual events from the Baums’ lives, is riveting, and in fact had the author not told us otherwise, I would have assumed that much of it was made up, because it’s almost too cool to be true.

Letts develops her characters subtly, with never a caricature or stereotype. Though her settings are well drawn, this is a character based book if ever I read one, and it must truly have been a labor of love. I’ve read a dozen books between this one and the present, yet this is the title that makes me smile.

This beautifully crafted story is bound to rank high among the year’s best historical novels. Sweet, soothing, and highly recommended.