By Mrs. McHugh
When schools shut down last March due to COVID-19, after I stockpiled canned goods and toilet paper, one of the first things I did was watch Contagion. This 2011 movie, starring Matt Damon and Kate Winslet, is about a deadly pandemic that scientists are desperate to track to its source in hopes of finding a way to fight it. And then I watched Outbreak, a 1995 movie with a similar plot.
Why would I choose these, when they so closely mirrored what was happening in real life? I’d like to think I was trying to process the scary and ever-changing news. This has happened before; a virus emerges, a cure is found, life goes on. Maybe I was looking for reassurance.
Or maybe I was just crazy.
Neither answer explains why, as the quarantine dragged on, I found myself picking up books about pandemics and plagues. There’s definitely no shortage of them, as I found when researching this article. I’ve always been drawn to dystopian fiction, stories about life after a cataclysmic event, how people go on. Often the plagues create zombies or other monsters that the remaining humans must fight. Sometimes, the true horrors come from other people. It’s the stories of resilience and endurance that draw me in. While I struggled to work from home, cut off from friends and family, afraid that a trip to the grocery store could make me sick with an illness that had terrible consequences, I guess I needed those.
Below are quick recaps of some of the books I read during the pandemic that were about a pandemic. Farther down, I list books I either read in the past or I’ve just heard good things about. If you’re like me, and looking for a story you can relate to in this crazy world, check one out. Hopefully, someday soon, these books will be the escape from reality they were meant to be.
My Pandemic Reads
The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks – This story is about the OG pandemic, the Black Plague that hit England in the 17th century. With primitive medicine and backward ideas, villages hit by the plague would be sealed from the outside world in hopes of containing the spread of death. The main character, Anna, is a housemaid when the plague hits. But as the village reels, she discovers her talent for healing. She doesn’t just survive, she grows. Based on a true story.
Afterland by Lauren Beukes – When a mysterious virus kills most of the men in the world, a woman struggles to keep her and her son alive, and out of the clutches of a government that wants to experiment on survivors in hopes of finding a cure. Meanwhile, her sister tries to capitalize on her nephew’s potential to bring her profit.
Survivor Song by Jacob Tremblay – Set in Stoughton and the surrounding area, this story takes place over the span of a few hours in one terrible day. A new virus has emerged, similar to rabies and spread by saliva – but with a much shorter incubation period. That means hours after being bitten, victims turn rabid and vicious to others. Hospitals are overrun, fights erupt at grocery stores and the military is trying to restore calm. When pregnant Natalie is bitten, she enlists her doctor friend on a longshot quest to get one of the few available vaccinations. If she can’t save herself, maybe she can save her baby.
Contaminated by Em Garner – Two years after a trendy diet drink spread a mysterious illness that turned victims into zombies, the government is trying to restore society. They’ve placed shock collars on the infected “connies” that will either control them or kill them. Teenaged Velvet tries to keep her and her 10-year-old sister alive. When she learns that her mother is among the infected who are set to be put to death, Velvet risks everything to save her.
Quarantined by Lex Thomas – This four-book series explores a virus that makes children deadly to adults. When the students at McKinley School are infected, the building is quarantined under military rule. When gangs form and battle to survive, misfit David tries to keep him and his brother alive.
The Wall by Marlene Haushofer – An ordinary woman awakes one day to find there is a wall at the end of her property and everyone else has vanished. In extraordinary times, she must live by her wits – and anything she can find on her land – to survive.
Blindness by Jose Saramago – When an epidemic of blindness hits a city, the residents show the best – and worst – of mankind.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – This story explores what it means to survive. After a mysterious flu decimates the population, a traveling band of artists, actors and musicians strives to keep humanity alive. Others, however, see the breakdown in civilization as a chance to wield brutal power.
The Stand by Stephen King – A military experiment wipes out 99 percent of the world, and the handful of survivors must choose sides. Will they follow the kind but frail Mother Abigail or the powerful and cruel Randall Flagg? Considered to be one of King’s finest books.
Severance by Ling Ma – Candace, a millennial living in New York, practically sleepwalks through life. So she doesn’t initially notice when a plague sweeps through the city, killing everyone who doesn’t flee. When she meets a group of survivors, who promise salvation in a destination called the Facility, she must decide whether it’s safer to join them or stay on her own. This satirical novel is part science fiction, part quirky coming-of-age story.