Friday Finds: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 killed more people than the First World War – about 3 to 6 % of the entire human race died from the disease.

When Emma Donoghue began writing a novel about this pandemic in 2018, inspired by its 100-year anniversary, she didn’t have any clue that, in just a few years time, a modern pandemic of our own would hit. How could she have known that another disease would similarly cripple the world’s health systems, bring economies to their knees and rapidly change the world? So it really was quite spooky that the year her book – The Pull of the Stars – came out, in 2020, we were in the midst of a health crisis of our own! And while I do think that there are some striking parallels between then and now in the novel, in terms of the uncertainties and fear associated with pandemics, the strongest part of the book is actually not its depiction of flu but of birth and birthing practices. It’s set in an early 20th century maternity ward in Dublin, a dangerous and precarious place where, even at the best of times, life and health are fragile things.

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Madeira Mondays: Trinity HistoryCon

‘Most of us began our love of history from something we saw on TV, in movies or other pop media.’

This was one of the opening remarks at Trinity History Con 2019, a two day long conference in Dublin at Trinity College, all about the intersections of pop culture and history. And that remark really stood out to me because I think it’s so true! Often the first time that we encounter history is through historical fiction – be that books, TV, films etc. For me it was reading books like Johnny Tremain about the Revolutionary War that ignited my curiosity in that whole time period. I know from speaking to other historical fiction writers, historians, and lovers of history that pop culture media often sparks a love or curiosity in a period that leads to academic research or just a lifelong fascination with a particular place and time.

In one panel at the conference, ‘How We Remember Her’, featuring actress Lotte Verbeek (from TV shows like Outlander and The Borgias), she discussed some of the different reasons someone might watch a historical fiction TV show like The Borgias: to get a sense of the past, to understand a bit, but also (perhaps primarily) to be entertained. Yet a show like that can also ‘open up a world for people’ who might otherwise know nothing at all about the time period and might now be encouraged to seek out further information.

The Borgias was one of dozens of pieces of pop media that were discussed at HistoryCon. While I was there, I saw talks on (to name a few!): Star Wars, Games of Thrones, Star Trek, and the Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. There were presentations on Kate Bush’s song ‘Wuthering Heights’ and its relationship to the novel, as well as discussions on Charles Manson and American film. There was even a presentation from two St Andrews researchers, Christin Simons and Elena Romero-Passerin, who research 18th century mercantilism and botany respectively, on the history-inspired board game they have designed based on their research called ‘Mer-plant-ilism’. Basically, this conference was a dream event for a history nerd (and all around nerd, let’s be honest!) like me.

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Conference organizer and presenter Dawn Seymour Klos giving her talk on Leia Organa and 13th century English Women

But in addition to academic talks from researchers from all over the world there was also a brilliant sword fighting demonstration in a college square and a costume contest!

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Sword fight demonstration from Medieval Armoured Combat of Ireland in Fellows’ Square, Trinity College

I was encouraged to enter the costume contest and actually won third place for my John Adams costume. What do you think of the outfit? (We actually had to walk down an aisle and pose in front of a panel of judges and I imagined RuPaul there and calling out, ‘Category is: Revolutionary Realness’).

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My John Adams costume for Trinity HistoryCon

And what I loved in particular about the concept of HistoryCon was that it was free, fun and open to the public. We were told to structure our talks more like Ted Talks, so that the general public (and several people did just wander in on the day) could engage with the material and have something to take away. Academic researchers are often encouraged to do public engagement and to disseminate their research with the wider community, and that is built in to the whole ethos of this event. Breaking down those barriers between the academy and the general public, and hopefully sparking curiosity about the past and the various ways to study and interact with it, was the name of the game.

I, for one, had a brilliant time presenting on representations of John Adams in pop culture. I delivered my talk ‘Obnoxious and Disliked’: John Adams’ Legacy in Popular Media, from 1776 to Hamilton, dressed as Adams and I’m not sure when I’ll ever have the opportunity to do that again!

I learned a lot throughout the busy two days and made so many new nerdy, academic friends. So I’d like to thank the organizers at Trinity College for creating such a fun and accessible conference and for inviting us all to Dublin. Thank you! Live long and prosper.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday!