HOOKED ON BOOKS: Let plague tales take your mind off you-know-what
It begins with a C. I’m not going to say the word because, by now, you’re probably sick of reading or hearing it in practically every story carried in the news media.
So, let’s talk about something else – something fun – something to take your mind off the C-word. Let’s talk about books depicting outbreaks, pandemics and quarantines in an entertaining way.
‘The Cockatrice Boys’ by Joan Aiken
In an alternate-history Britain, an invasion of monsters has brought civilization to its knees. The Cockatrice Corps defends the realm, armed with snark masks and ray guns and using an armored train to deliver vital supplies. Crucial to their effort are a drummer boy whose rhythms ward off evil, a girl who can see the future and a dog that understands German.
This book includes a powerful argument that people need stories “to remind them that reality is not only what we can see or smell or touch. … People's minds need detaching, every now and then, from the plain necessities of daily life. People need to be reminded of these other dimensions above us and below us. Stories do that.”
‘A Plague of Sorcerers’ by Mary Frances Zambreno
Here’s another alternate-history version of England, similar to the 19th century, but with all areas of life touched by wizardry.
A young apprentice sorcerer named Jermyn is having trouble making his magic work. He has a skunk for a familiar and his spells tend to end with a smelly explosion. Yet somehow, it’s up to him to stop an evil plot to infect all of London’s wizards with a deadly plague.
This is a hilarious, inventive and warm-hearted story full of surprises and a unique brand of magic. I think it deserves to be better known.
‘The Pox Party’ by M.T. Anderson
This National Book Award-winning novel introduces Octavian, a slave at the time of the American Revolution, who escapes a series of racist experiments including an attempt to inoculate his owner’s household staff against smallpox, with tragic results.
The cruelty of racism, horrors of war, bad public hygiene and other unsavory aspects of our nation’s early history are among the themes of Octavian’s multi-volume adventure, full of perils, thought-provoking issues and wry satire.
‘Lair of Dreams’ by Libba Bray
I give this story about a sleeping plague caused by ghosts in Prohibition-era New York City only three stars out of five. The jazzy atmosphere, the creeping dread and the chemistry between some of the main characters keeps the pages of this doorstop-sized book turning. And when you’re stuck indoors, you’re not going to complain about the book being long.
On the other hand, this book runs a lot of plot lines at the same time, meaning that most of them move with exasperating slowness. Also note, it’s the second book of a series starting with “The Diviners.”
‘Tuck Everlasting’ by Natalie Babbitt
A story about a fountain of immortality might seem like an odd choice for this topic. But as one family finds after drinking its waters, being unable to age or die is itself a kind of plague, stripping them of hope or growth or a real chance to participate in life.
The sense of loneliness this creates weighs deeply on the heart. Beautiful, vivacious and deeply sad, this brief tale forms vivid mental images and culminates in two words (“Good girl”) that, a dozen years after I last read it, still stir bittersweet feelings.