Book Review: 'Doomsday Book,' By Connie Willis | This week, the CDC predicted there could be tens of thousands of Ebola cases if the disease is not controlled soon. Author Alaya Dawn Johnson turns to a favorite novel for wisdom amid this epidemic.


As The Ebola Outbreak Worsens, A Book About Compassion

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The Ebola outbreak in West Africa shows no signs of slowing. Elsewhere in the program, we're hearing about the challenges of responding and now some thoughts from literature. For our series This Week's Must Read, Alaya Dawn Johnson turns to a favorite novel.

ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: There have been a lot of sobering statistics about Ebola in the news recently, but one really stuck with me. More than 200 healthcare workers have died so far. It's hard for me to imagine the kind of courage you need to care for people with this awful contagious disease. But then I thought back to Connie Willis' groundbreaking science fiction novel "Doomsday Book," and its resonances came back to me with the sound of tolling bells.

The story takes place mostly in a small medieval town. A time traveler named Kivrin Engle is stranded there, waiting for her colleagues from the future to rescue her. The town's bells mark the hours as she waits. They also ring for holidays. They ring for weddings. And they ring for the dead, so that the sound might guide their souls to heaven. This is the winter of 1348, and the plague is cutting through the English countryside. The bells ring until it seems they might never stop.

Kivrin, who's been inoculated against the plague, helps the local priest care for the dying in her adoptive town. Together, they battle their invisible enemy with only the crudest weapons and, when those inevitably fail, with faith. I'll be doing all right, Kivrin says, and then suddenly the fear swamps me. And I have to take hold of the bed frame to keep from running out of the room, out of the house, out of the village, away from it.

This kind of fear would paralyze most of us, but Kivrin and the priest show a remarkable human bravery. They quarantine the sick and clean hemorrhaging blood and fight and fight, even as the town dies around them. In the end, she's nearly alone, but still Kivrin doesn't run. Instead, she rings the bells, so that even the souls of the caretakers can find their way home.

BLOCK: The "Doomsday Book" is by Connie Willis. It was recommended by Alaya Dawn Johnson.

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