A historical fantasy set in 1918 flu-ravaged Philadelphia, The Infinite Now by Mindy Tarquini (Hindsight, 2016) follows Fiora, a young immigrant struggling to learn the intricacies of time bending, teamwork and living in a world which seems as hell-bent on breaking her spirit as she is to keep it.
My fascination with the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 began during a bout of genealogy, which found me paging through Philadelphia death certificates. In late September of 1918, the typical causes of death—cardiac issues, cancers, accidents—gave way to another, ominous in its simplicity: pneumonia, often followed by the notation “subsequent to influenza.” Something tickled at my brain, a newspaper article regarding the bird flu scares of recent years, that the H5N1 virus responsible for that flu may be related to the virus which killed so many in 1918.
The reason for my deep dive into digital death certificates was due to my grandfather’s curious absence from the 1920 census. I’d found family records in Italy going back two centuries, found my grandfather’s emigration to the United States as a young boy, found his father’s naturalization papers, then unexpectedly, found a record from late in 1920 listing a marriage between my great-grandfather and, of all things, a second wife. But in the 1920 census, not a hint or a whisper, not on their street, or any neighboring street, nor any of the blocks after blocks that I searched page by tedious page.
Then I stumbled on records from an orphanage far outside the city that listed my grandfather as an “inmate,” a sad little name among many sad little names. He was only 12 years old.
My heart broke.
Quizzing my relatives revealed the story. My great-grandmother had died suddenly circa 1918-1919. My great-grandfather, a grief-stricken and overwhelmed father of four, had farmed out the children until he could find them a new mother. He married within a year of my great-grandmother’s passing. The family reunited, their lives continued.
Stories are birthed from a myriad of circumstances and ideas. I could not get the vision of my all-but-abandoned grandfather out of my head. Dumped in an orphanage, far from anybody or anything he knew or loved, desperate to return home. I also couldn’t shake the hundreds of death certificates from pneumonia, some “subsequent to influenza,” that I’d uncovered in my quest for my great-grandmother’s passing. So many of the victims had been young adults, an unbearable irony when viewed through the prism of the war raging a half a world away.
My forays into family history gave me a good impression of my great-grandparents’ immigrant community. Newspapers from the period, histories of the Great Influenza and an insatiable curiosity provided the rest. One morning, a girl woke me. Just 16 years old, she filled my mind’s ear with her tale:
Her parents had just died from the influenza. Her immigration status was precarious, her brothers fighting in the war, and a neighbor had dumped her at the door of a mysterious old man, a shoemaker the girl did not know, but who was the only person standing between this girl and an orphanage. Because this girl’s mother had been the village fortune teller. Because her neighbors feared her.
The girl was bright. She was a modern thinker born into a traditional world, tough as they come, hopeful without end and determined to prevent the metaphorical tornado churning its way through her city from sweeping her American dream into the maelstrom.
I knew I had to tell her story.
Connect with the author at mindytarquini.com.