In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters—Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa—a chance at a better life.
But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without—and what they are willing to do about it.
As Bright as Heaven is the compelling story of a mother and her daughters who find themselves in a harsh world not of their making, which will either crush their resolve to survive or purify it.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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Morning light shimmers on the apricot horizon as I stand at the place where my baby boy rests. Stouthearted chickadees are singing in the day, just like they have done every other winter's dawn, but when this same sun sets tonight, I will be miles away from them, and inside an unfamiliar house. There will be no reminders anywhere that Henry was ever mine. Not visible ones, anyway.
I kneel on the dead grass, brittle with icy moisture. The fabric of my skirt draws in the chilled damp, as if it is parched with thirst. The growing wetness at my knees is unhurried and easy, like a clean, slow blade. I look at the little marble slab that bears Henry's name and the carving of a sweet lamb curled up among lilies, and I'm reminded again that he was my angel child, even before he flew away to heaven.
From the moment I held my boy, glistening and new, I knew that he wasn't like the other babies I'd given birth to. He wasn't like my girls. They'd slipped out annoyed by the noise and chill and sharp edges of this world. Not Henry. He didn't cry. He didn't curl his tiny hands into fists. He didn't shout his displeasure at being pulled out of the only safe place he knew.
When the doctor placed him in my arms, Henry merely looked at me with eyes so blue they could've been sapphires. He held my gaze like he knew who I was. Knew everything about me. Like he still had the breath of eternity in his lungs.
He didn't care when I parted the folds of his blanket to look at his maleness and marvel at the pearly sheen of his skin against mine. I could scarcely believe I'd given birth to a boy after three girls and so many years since the last one. I just kept staring at Henry and he just let me.
When Thomas was let into the room, he was as astonished that we had a son as I was. The girls were, too. They followed in right after their father, even though it was the middle of the night, and we all gazed and grinned at the little man-child, the quiet lad who did not cry.
My father-in-law came over the next morning, as did Thomas's brothers and their wives, all of them smelling of dried tobacco leaves and spice. My parents came, too, and my sister, Jane, who was newly pregnant with her own child after several years of hoping and praying for a baby. They all marveled at how beautiful Henry was, how calm, how enchanting his gaze and how sweet his temperament. My mother and Thomas's sisters-in-law stared at him like I'd done the night before, amazed as I had been at how serene this baby was. They had known, too, without knowing, that something wasn't right.
The few months we had with Henry were wonder filled and happy. He did all the things a baby does that make you smile and laugh and want to kiss his downy head. When he needed something, like my breast or a clean diaper or affection, he didn't wail; he merely sighed a sweet little sound that if it were made of words would have started with "If it's not too much trouble . . ." We didn't know he didn't have the physical strength to exert himself. His perfectly formed outsides hid the too-small, too-weak heart that my body had made for him.
And yet had God asked me ahead of time if I wanted this sweet child for just shy of half a year, I still would have said yes. Even now, eight weeks after Henry's passing, and even when I hold Jane's sweet little newborn, Curtis, I would still say yes.
I don't know if Thomas feels this way, and I know the girls don't. Evelyn is still sad, Maggie is still angry, and Willa is still bewildered that Henry was taken from us. I can't say why I am none of those things anymore. What I feel inside, I'm not sure there are words to describe. I should still be sad, angry, and bewildered, but instead I feel a numbness regarding Death that I've told no one about. Not even Thomas.
I no longer fear Death, though I know that I should. I'm strangely at peace with what I used to think of as my enemy. Living seems more the taskmaster of the two, doesn't it? Life is wonderful and beautiful but oh, how hard it can be. Dying, by contrast, is easy and simple, almost gentle. But who can I tell such a thing to? No one. I am troubled by how remarkable this feeling is.
This is why I changed my mind about moving to Philadelphia. I'd said no the first time Thomas's uncle made his offer even though I could tell my husband was interested. Back then I couldn't imagine leaving this sleepy little town where I've lived all my life, couldn't imagine leaving my parents, though I've never been especially dependent on their subtle shows of affection. I didn't want to move to the city, where the war in Europe would somehow seem closer, didn't want to uproot the girls from the only home they've ever known. Didn't want to tear myself away from all that was familiar. Uncle Fred wrote again a couple months after Henry was born, and Thomas had said we needed to think carefully before turning down a second invitation.
"Uncle Fred might take his offer to one of my brothers," Thomas had told me.
I truly would have given the matter more serious thought if Henry hadn't begun his slow ascent away from us right about the same time. When my son's fragile heart finally began to number his days, nothing else mattered but holding on to him as long as we could. Thomas didn't bring up the matter again when the third letter from Uncle Fred arrived last week. My husband thinks I cannot leave this little mound of grass.
But the truth is, I have come out from under the shroud of sorrow a different person. I no longer want to stay in this place where Henry spent such a short time. I don't want Thomas shading a view of the wide horizon with hands calloused from binder leaves. I don't want the girls to end up mirroring this life of mine, in a place where nothing truly changes but the contours of your heart.
More than that, I want to know why Death seems to walk beside me like a companion now rather than prowling behind like a shadowy specter. Surely the answers await me in Uncle Fred's funeral parlor, where he readies the deceased for their journeys home. Thomas would've gone to his grave rolling cigars for other men to smoke, but now he will one day inherit Uncle Fred's mortuary business and then he won't be under the thumb of anyone.
I don't know what it is like to be the wife of an undertaker. I only know that I need to remember how it was to keep Death at a distance.
I kneel, kiss my fingertips, and brush them against the H carved into the cold stone.
And I rise from the wet ground without saying good-bye.
I will miss the curing barn in autumn, when the tobacco leaves hang from the laths like golden skirts in a wardrobe. I've always loved how in October the papery leaves smell like cedar, molasses, and tree bark. There won't be anything like them in Philadelphia. And we'll be long gone by the time October comes around again.
The curing barn is my favorite place because it's either as busy as a beehive or as still as a painting. After that first killing frost it's like the painting, so still and quiet you can forget there's a changing world outside. No one has to do anything in the curing barn in the fall except have a look-see now and then to make sure none of the tobacco leaves are getting moldy. In the fall, we're all in the rolling room. I'm twelve but I've the delicate hands of a young woman, Grandad says, so I roll a nice cigar. Evie just turned fifteen and doesn't like rolling; she'd rather be reading under the locust tree when the weather's nice, but she likes to buy books with the money she earns. Our younger sister, Willa, is only six. It would've been a long while before Grandad told her she had hands as graceful as a dancer and rolled a cigar better than a man did.
I don't usually spend much time in the barn when the tobacco leaves are finished with their curing, but that was where I was when Mama told Papa she'd seen Uncle Fred's letter. I'd come home from school, done my chores, and then walked across the snowy field from our house to lie among the few remaining wooden slats that still held their toast-colored leaves. I'd been going to the curing barn a lot since my baby brother died, but Papa had forgotten I was there.
"I've been thinking about Philadelphia," Mama said. Papa had been checking the empty laths for rot and weak spots. He was a couple rows over from me, and I was on my back on the dirt behind a crate, looking up at the leafy ball gowns. The last time Mama had been to Philadelphia was when Henry was still alive. She and Evie had taken him to see a doctor, and they'd come home with the awful news that he wasn't going to get better. There was no doctor in the city or on the face of the whole earth who could cure Henry.
"I think we should go," Mama had said.
At first I thought Willa must be sick now, and that was why Mama wanted to go to Philadelphia again. Or Evie. Or maybe I was the sick one and I didn't even know it yet. But then Mama added she'd seen Uncle Fred's latest letter asking Papa to come work for him in Philadelphia, and now she was thinking it was a good idea after all.
"What made you change your mind?" Papa sounded surprised.
A second or two went by before Mama answered him. "Everything."
Papa paused a moment, too, before he said, "If we do this, I don't think we can undo it."
"We won't be able to get back here that often, Pauline. Not at first."
"I know that, too," Mama said. "If I can bring the girls back to see the family for a week or two in the summer, I can be content with that."
"I don't suppose your parents will be too keen about this. Especially your mother."
"No, maybe not. But you know how she is. She'll quietly stew on it a bit, and then she'll be done. I think in the end she wants us to be happy. I know that's what I'd want for us if I were her."
A funny, spirally feeling had started to wind its way inside me as my parents talked to each other. Papa and Mama were talking about moving to the city to live with Uncle Fred, a man I had only met once. He came out to Quakertown when Granny died. Not Mama's mama, Papa's. When I was eight.
Papa had said, "Are you sure now? Are you sure this is what you want to do?"
"It's what you want to do, isn't it?" Mama replied.
"It will mean a good life for you and the girls. A much better life than what I'm giving you here."
"You've given us a good life, Tom," Mama said.
"I want to give you a better one."
Then Papa said he needed to tell Grandad and break the news to the family and they'd need to sell the house. They talked for a few more minutes, but I wasn't listening to everything they said. I was thinking about leaving my friends and the other family members and the curing barn. I couldn't remember what Uncle Fred's business was, but I was positive it wasn't growing tobacco and rolling cigars. Not in the city. It was so strange to me that my parents could just decide we were leaving and we'd leave. How could we move away from where we'd buried Henry?
When Mama left, I stood up slowly so that I would see Papa before he saw me. But he was looking my direction and he saw my head clear the laths. I'm not afraid of my father. He doesn't yell or curse or storm about when he's angry, but he can look like he wants to. He's tall like Grandad and has the same coffee brown eyes that glitter like stars both when he's happy and when he's sad. And I guess when he's surprised, too.
"I didn't know you were still in here," he said.
"Did you hear everything?"
He gave me a very serious look. "You can't say anything to anybody, not even your sisters, until I talk to Grandad first. You understand?"
"Are we moving to Philadelphia?"
He hesitated a second or two before answering, like he almost couldn't believe it was true himself. "Yes," he said.
"Why? What's wrong with where we live right now?"
Papa moved from his row to mine. "There's nothing wrong with where we live right now. I just have a chance to give you girls a much better home. Better schooling. Better everything. My uncle Fred doesn't have any children. He has no one to leave his home and business to. He wants to leave them to me when he dies. To us. He has a very nice house, Mags. Electric lights in every room. Hot water from the tap."
"And so just like that, we're going?"
"Mama and I've been thinking on it awhile."
"All my friends are here."
"You will make new ones. I promise you will."
"Henry's here." My throat felt hot and thick as I said Henry's name. I looked away from Papa, and in the direction of the cemetery, even though I couldn't see it from inside the curing barn.
Papa put his hands gently on my shoulders so that I would turn my head to face him again. "Henry's in heaven. He's not in the graveyard here-you know that. We're not leaving him; we're taking him with us in our hearts."
I reached up to flick away a couple tears that wanted to trail down my face.
"I need you to promise you won't say anything. Not yet," Papa said.
I didn't answer.
"Maggie, I want your word now."
"I promise," I finally whispered.
"All right, then." He took one hand off my shoulders, but left the other one as he began to lead us toward the big door that led outside. "When I tell your sisters, that's when you'll know it's okay to tell other people. Not until then."
Reading Group Guide
As Bright as Heaven
Questions for Discussion
1. What do you think it would be like to live in a city experiencing a pandemic, as Philadelphia did with the flu? Do you think the Bright family made the best choices for their survival? Would you have handled things differently?
2. How do you think the fact that the Brights were living in a funeral home changed their experience of the flu and the way they reacted to it?
3. How would you describe the family dynamics among the Bright sisters and the rest of the family before the flu? How about after? Do the Bright sisters remind you of people you know?
4. How did the Spanish flu pandemic shape the Bright sisters’ adult lives? Did you experience a life-defining event in your childhood? How did it affect you?
5. Would As Bright as Heaven be a dramatically different story if it were from the point of view of only one character instead of four? How?
6. Could you relate to Pauline’s relationship with Death after the loss of her infant son and the move to Philadelphia? Why or why not?
7. Discuss Maggie’s actions on the day she found the baby. How did her choices affect her family? Do you empathize with her decisions?
8. Why do you think Maggie decided to take on Pauline’s work at the funeral home after her mother died? How do you think that work changed her as she grew up?
9. Why do you think Evie chose to become a psychiatrist?
10. What do you think of Evie’s final solution to her dilemma regarding Conrad? What would you have done?
11. Why do you think fourteen-year-old Willa was drawn to the speakeasy?
12. Forgiving Pauline’s parents wasn’t easy for Thomas Bright. Do you think what happened to Pauline was their fault? In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of forgiving someone?
13. Pauline imagined her mother telling her, “The heart always does what it needs to do.” Do you think that is true?
14. The subtle presence of butterflies recurs throughout the book. How many references to them can you recall? What do they signify?
15. Has this novel changed you or your perspective on life and death? Did you learn something new about yourself or the way you think?