Clare Vanderpool

When the Pandemic Came to Town

So here we are. Hunkered down. Social distancing. Sheltering in place. What now?Many of us have turned to books. Reading is kind of like sheltering in place. It’s something we do mostly alone but something we are also doing in common.   We come to our books from different places. A lunch break. A baby’s nap. The middle seat on an airplane. Or these days, from our ‘shelter in place’ place. We enter the story from our unique perspective and circumstance.

But whatever our starting point we have similar hopes and expectations going in – to be taken on a journey, to encounter a world and experience outside of our own. I had similar hopes a while back when writing my first book, Moon Over Manifest. It is the story of a young girl trying to find her place in the world. Abilene Tucker sets out on a train from her life on the road to the small town of Manifest, Kansas. As an aspiring writer I accompanied her on this journey into the unknown. It was a scary endeavor. Would we find our way? Would it turn out all right?

Moon Over Manifest is a back and forth story set in two time periods so long ago that they must be very different from our own. 1936—a Great Depression. Staggering unemployment. Agricultural unsustainability. The diaspora of families and communities. And 1918 -– Political upheaval. War. Immigration. Discrimination. Prejudice. And disease. A pandemic that swept the globe leaving death and devastation in its wake.

So maybe not so different after all.

Manifest is a mining town made up of immigrants, bootleggers, gossips, and grifters. A preacher, a diviner, a nun, and a reporter-about-town. Saints and sinners all of them. Manifest was a little town struggling with all the big issues of its time — when a pandemic came to town.

My story from the back in the day is starting to sound like one ripped from the headlines. Right down to the town quarantine. They hunker down. Keep their distance. Create their cure all elixir that actually works. At least at first.

My grandmother, Mae Rousseau, in 1918 on her 18th birthday.

The town of Manifest has its origins in the real town of Frontenac, Kansas where my maternal grandparents grew up.   My grandmother was there, just shy of her 18th birthday when the flu hit. She was the only one in her family to survive. She shared the story with her daughter. And my mom told it to me.   And that story became part of my story.

World War I soldiers (my grandmother’s brother on the far left) at Camp Funston, KS where many believe the 1918 Flu Pandemic began.

So what happened to the citizens of Manifest? Did they make it through? Did they come out all right? And let’s be honest. What we’re really asking is how will this all turn out for us? Because that’s what we hope for in the stories we read. Not to just be transported outside of our own experience. But to recognize ourselves in the drama. To see our own humanity right there on the page, in all of its bruised and beautiful, clumsy and grace-filled glory.

Our current situation is like being in a story–a time and place outside of our own experience. We all enter from different starting points of culture, place, family, community. We might come from an inner place of distraction, estrangement, isolation, loneliness. But once we are in this particular story it’s that paradox of being alone but doing it together. They say there is strength in numbers. There is also comfort, companionship, solidarity even.

All good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. In this present day pandemic the beginning was rough and terrible and scary. Now we’re in the middle. The slog. The grind. The dark. So where will come out, and who will we be on the other side?

Many are predicting that our world, and we as people, will be forever changed by this pandemic. Strangely, that seemingly gloomy prediction is what can provide the thing we need most. Hope. After all, this would be an awful lot to go through to come out the other side unchanged.

What can we learn from the good citizens of Manifest who have lived this experience before us? What would they tell us? I’ve read the book, and I think they would only share what they learned from their own town quarantine.

Welcome the stranger.
Be a good neighbor.
Make something from scratch.
Be frugal so as to be generous with others.
Say what needs saying.
Meet, greet, invite.
Eat, talk, sing.
Laugh, cry, console.
Do all of these with others more often than alone.

And most importantly, remember the story. Tell it to your kids and grandkids.

 “Back in the day we had a pandemic. It was rough and terrible and scary. And it changed us.”

My grandfather, Noah (Jack) Rousseau in his World War I uniform. He believed a regular dose of castor oil helped him avoid the influenza.

Clare Vanderpool

Clare Vanderpool

When the Pandemic Came to Town