Like the Willow Tree by Newbery award-winning author Lois Lowry is set in 1918, in the midst of the Spanish Flu epidemic. It follows Lydia Amelia Pierce, an eleven-year-old girl living in Portland, Maine.
The Spanish Influenza epidemic was, in some ways, similar to the worldwide pandemic in which we are now living. People were dying, and it seemed as though the world would never be the same again. The epidemic began in February, 1918, and was not at its close until April, 1920, exactly one hundred years before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the earth.
Although there were some similarities between the effects of the Coronavirus, and the Spanish Flu, there were also many differences. For example, one hundred years ago, the medical field was significantly smaller than it is now, and the nurses and doctors had less to go on in their search for a cure. There was no CNN or ABC news that told people the latest news about the pandemic. There were newspapers, of course, but still, people were less informed about what was going on in the rest of the country.
Like the Willow Tree was originally published as part of the Dear America series, a series about children growing up in important times in American history, such as the Spanish Influenza. The books are written in the form of journal entries, instead of regular prose. You can see the slowly rising effect of the illness through her entries, starting with her not being able to go to the movie theater for her birthday, to the devastating entry telling that she is orphaned, and the only family she has left is her elder brother, Danial.
Lydia’s uncle takes Lydia and Danial in, but he has a family of his own, and he can’t care for them for long. So Lydia and Danial, are sent to the Society of Shakers at SabbathDay Lake.
The Shakers are a religious group of people, with strict beliefs, and ways of life. At first, Lydia hates them. She misses her family, and her old life, and she dislikes some of the Shaker’s ways. The Shakers won’t allow her to talk to Danial, her only living family, because they believe that the girls and the boys should be kept separate. Lydia worries for Daniel, he seems unhappy, and she is worried that he will try and run away, to join the army, as he once talked of doing.
Lydia has trials and hardships throughout her months of life at the shaker village, but she slowly learns to love their way of life, the last few sentences of her final journal entry, written after Easter Sunday supper as Sabbathday Lake, reads:
“I took it all in, thinking of everything that had brought me here—the sadness, the losses, the fear, the loneliness, and even the things that had left me shaking with anger. All of that was part of me, the me I had once been. But most of me now was at peace.”
I enjoyed Like the Willow Tree as a book, of course, but it was especially intriguing because the main character was experiencing the same, once-in-a-lifetime thing as I was right then. The Spanish Flu pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic are very different, but during both, people had to isolate themselves while scientists searched madly for a cure.
At one point, Lydia says that “the world will never be the same again,” and although the world was different from the Influenza, people lived lives without having to worry about contracting it wherever they went. This can be something hopeful to think about right now, as we creep closer to the end of the COVID pandemic, and farther away from the beginning.
As I said, Like the Willow Tree was first published as part of the Dear America series, but in September, 2020, author Lois Lowry had the book republished with a new introduction written by the author.
I would recommend Like the Willow Tree to anyone about 8 and up. There are some themes of death, given the setting, but overall, it was a wonderful read, and gave a good view of life during the Spanish Flu pandemic, and the Shaker community at SabbathDay Lake.
Like the Willow Tree by Lois Lowry. Scholastic, 2020. Buy the book here and support Stone Soup in the process!