LITTLE SOULS

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Dallas’ first-person narrator is 24-year-old Lutie, short for Lucretia, a fashion illustrator for a downtown department store that caters to Denver’s upper class. Lutie lives with her older sister, Helen, who, as a nurse, is dealing firsthand with the misery attending the epidemic. As the novel begins, Lutie, among a small, fearful throng, witnesses the death throes of a soldier on a public street. This is only one instance of Dallas’ graphic depictions of the course of the influenza pandemic in one city, many of which resonate today—although not necessarily the “death wagons” patrolling the streets or the widespread acceptance of public health measures. Lutie arrives home to find Ronald Streeter, the sisters’ downstairs tenant, stabbed to death in the kitchen, Helen standing over him with an ice pick in hand as his 10-year-old daughter, Dorothy, cowers nearby. We soon learn that drunken, depraved Streeter abused his wife, Maud, and had raped Dorothy, also offering her to his crony, Maud’s equally depraved brother. Helen’s fiance, Gil, a medical student also overworked during the pestilence, helps remove the body to a vacant lot, hoping one of the “wagons” will dispose of it along with the anonymous remains of flu victims. As the sisters make a home for the traumatized Dorothy after Maud dies of flu, complications pile up. Long-suppressed secrets emerge as the uncle tries to interfere with the sisters’ adoption case. The parents of Peter, Lutie’s fiance, who is killed in the war, offer staunch help. Dallas makes a worthy effort to use the parlance of the day, erring on the side of formal, somewhat stilted speech on the parts of all but the guttersnipe characters. Aside from these obvious villains, the characters are well intentioned and unfailingly kind, including two hard-boiled detectives. The novel is seeded throughout with tragedy, but the overriding message is hope, and the overarching adversary is not human but a virus.

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