50 pages 1 hour read

Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


The Pull of the Stars, published in 2020, is a work of historical fiction by Emma Donoghue, an Irish Canadian playwright, literary historian, novelist, and screenwriter. The novel was longlisted for the Giller Prize. Told from the first-person point of view of protagonist Julia Power, the story is set at an Ireland hospital during the influenza pandemic of 1918, which was also the last year of World War I. While most of the characters are fictional, Dr. Kathleen Lynn is based on a real doctor who lived and worked in Ireland at the time.

Plot Summary

The novel follows Julia Power, a nurse working in a Dublin hospital in 1918. Not only is Ireland involved in World War I, with many Irish men gone to fight for the British, but the 1918 influenza pandemic is ravaging the world. Julia lives with her younger brother, Tim, who fought in World War I before the British Army discharged him. Julia’s father and stepmother live on a farm in the countryside.

The novel takes place over just three days, beginning on the morning of October 31, 1918, the day before Julia’s 30th birthday. She commutes to the hospital, where her assignment is to oversee the Maternity/Fever ward, a makeshift ward of only three cots for pregnant women who have influenza infections. When Julia arrives, she learns from the night nurse, Sister Luke, that one of her patients, Eileen Devine, died during the night. Julia asks Sister Luke to find someone to help her in the ward. After Sister Luke leaves, Julia tends to her other two patients, Ita Noonan, who is becoming increasingly delirious, and Delia Garrett.

A young woman, Bridie Sweeney, arrives as a volunteer to help Julia. At first, Bridie’s lack of education or experience frustrate Julia. She teaches Bridie how to wash her hands, sterilize equipment, and help around the ward. Groyne, one of the orderlies, brings in a new patient, Mary O’Rahilly, and tells Julia and Bridie that the hospital has a new doctor: Dr. Lynn is a woman—and is supposedly involved in protests for Ireland’s independence from British rule.

Julia realizes that Delia is in pain and is going into labor prematurely. After Julia helps Delia deliver her baby, who is stillborn, she must manually remove Delia’s afterbirth so that Delia won’t bleed to death. Dr. Lynn arrives, and although Julia is skeptical of her, she realizes that Dr. Lynn is an experienced and hardworking doctor who trusts Julia’s abilities as a nurse. Shortly thereafter, Ita Noonen dies, along with her unborn fetus.

After orderlies take Ita’s body away, they bring in a new patient, Honor White. Honor is pregnant for the second time out of wedlock. She holds rosary beads and prays to herself. At the end of the day, Sister Luke returns to oversee the ward. Before Julia leaves, Dr. Lynn asks her to help perform an autopsy on Ita’s body. As Julia and Dr. Lynn talk, Julia learns more about the doctor’s controversial political views.

The next day, Julia returns to the hospital and is happy to see that Bridie has returned too. Eventually, Mary is ready to give birth and delivers a healthy baby. That afternoon, Honor White goes into labor. During the difficult birth, Julia tries to give her own blood to Honor through a blood transfusion, but it goes poorly. Finally, Honor gives birth to a boy, who has a cleft lip but is otherwise healthy. Honor shows no interest in holding or kissing her baby.

Dr. Lynn encourages Julia to stay the night to preserve her strength after the blood transfusion. Bridie decides to stay overnight as well. Julia and Bridie head to the nurses’ dorms but discover that the hospital has converted them into a men’s ward. The two women instead spend the night on the hospital’s roof. On the rooftop, they talk about the flu and the stars, and Julia learns more about Bridie’s childhood. Bridie lived with a foster mother until age four and then in a home for orphaned children. The nuns at the home expected the children to complete chores and care for infants. The living conditions were poor, and the children often didn’t get enough food to eat. Worse, the adults there sexually abused many of the children. During their night on the rooftop, Bridie kisses Julia. They continue kissing and talking throughout the night, and Julia realizes that she has fallen in love with Bridie.

The next morning, in the Maternity/Fever ward, Delia gets permission to go home. A while later, Honor White dies. Julia and Bridie realize that Honor’s baby never received a name. They give him the name Barnabas White and perform a baptism. Afterward, Julia realizes that Bridie is displaying flu symptoms. Julia encourages Bridie to lie down in one of the empty cots. Several hours later, Bridie dies. Heartbroken, Julia doesn’t want Barnabas to end up at a home for orphaned children like the one where Bridie grew up and decides to take Barnabas home and raise him as her own.

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