Monday, February 12, 2018

"As Bright As Heaven"

Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include A Bridge Across the Ocean; Secrets of Charmed Life, a Goodreads finalist for Best Historical Fiction 2015; and A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University. Meissner is a pastor’s wife and a mother of four young adults.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her latest novel, As Bright as Heaven, and reported the following:
As Bright As Heaven is a novel with the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 as its primary backdrop. The story is told in the alternating viewpoints of a mother, Pauline, and her three daughters who are 15,13 and seven. Page 69 happens to be one of Pauline’s chapters, just before the flu descends. She is sharing with the reader how she feels about being the wife of an undertaker, which is new for her – her husband had been a tobacco farmer but has just been named partner and heir to his uncle’s Philadelphia mortuary business.

Pauline, still grieving the loss of an infant son the year before, has an unexplainable desire to help get the dead ready for burial in the embalming room of the family business. This desire perplexes her after what happened to her baby boy. Likewise, she senses that Death is still swirling about her, but not like a specter, not like a Grim Reaper, but more like a companion who knows well her loss.

In this particular scene, Pauline had been looking a book on ancient Egyptology and reading about what the Egyptians did to preserve their dead. She muses on the notion that our mortal bodies are given more reverence after death than even before it, and she compares the human body to a candle, and the soul its flame. When the flame is snuffed out all that is left to prove that there had been a flame is the candle, and that even that we only get to keep for a little while.

Pauline says on page 69, speaking of the book on Egyptology, “Then the body would be laid in its beautiful coffin, all wrapped up in spices like myrrh and cinnamon, and the jars would be tucked right alongside it. The body would last a long time. A very long time. But the book said that mummies that have been opened and unwrapped look very little like the people they had been several millennia before. Eventually, the candle disappears, too. It just does.”

Throughout the book, Pauline’s character wrestles with the notion that it is our mortality that gives life its meaning: if our days were not numbered, we would not care how we spent them. Death actually gives life its value. And life is precious not just because it’s finite, but because we spend our lives loving people and being loved. It is love that makes saying goodbye so hard, and the road to recovery after loss even harder, and yet love is also what makes recovery possible. When those we love die, we get to keep all the love we have for them. That part stays. It hurts as we heal, but we do heal. And it’s love that is the balm.
Visit Susan Meissner's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Susan Meissner & Bella.

--Marshal Zeringue