Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Editorial Book Review: Beautiful Ghost by Milana Marsenich #HistoricalFiction #EditorialReview #TheCoffeePotBookClub

*Editorial Book Review*


by Milana Marsenich

During the fall of 1918, the influenza pandemic crosses the nation and reaches the mining town of Butte, Montana.

Marika Jovich, who wants to go to school to become a physician, works menial tasks for Dr. Fletcher. She feels useless as she tries to save friends and neighbors from the ravages of the flu. In the midst of the pandemic, she watches the town shut down, young and old perish, and her medical dreams all but evaporate.

Kaly Monroe used to be a half-good woman of the night. She left that life to raise her daughter, Annie, and live and work with her long-lost mother, Tara McClane. Kaly waits for her husband, Tommy, to return from the war. Word from the east is that soldiers are dying of influenza and she prays that Tommy is not one of them.

When an out-of-town woman named Amelia suddenly dies in Dr. Fletcher's office, both women try to learn more about the mysterious woman and the circumstances regarding her death. Is she another casualty of the pandemic, or the victim of manmade foul play? Who is this stranger, and is her demise a portent of the fate that awaits the residents of Butte?

Go! She wanted to yell at it. The flu would only laugh. Yell all you want, it would say, I'm going nowhere but here and there. And everywhere. 

Marika Jovich dreams of becoming a doctor, but for now, she works for Dr. Fletcher. When a sick young woman is brought to the doctor's office at the end of the day, Marika decides to nurse the woman herself rather than call for the doctor. But with no formal medical training, Marika is fumbling in the dark, with only her late grandmother's wisdom to guide her. What she did not immediately recognise was this was no ordinary flu. The pandemic that was ravaging the east had finally reached her town.

Milana Marsenich's "Beautiful Ghost" is a hauntingly beautiful novel that explores the horrors of the 1918 flu pandemic in Butte, Montana.

Marsenich has created a vivid depiction of the flu’s assault on its victims. What began as a basic sore throat, along with chills and fever, swiftly turned into respiratory failure. Marika's first contact with the flu is through a young mother, Amelia, who is brought to the doctor's clinic at the end of the working day. Amelia has travelled from Philadelphia with her young son, but not long after arriving in Butte, Montana she begins to feel ill. Marika can only watch in horror as Amelia begins to suffer from bleeding from the nose and ears which is accompanied by a blue tinge of the skin and black feet. Whatever this was, it was no ordinary flu. Marsenich has spared no detail when it comes to depicting the pandemic. It ravishes Butte, taking healthy people as its victims and killing them within days. Marika, like many of the other health professionals, risks their life daily to help those who have succumbed to this terrible illness. With limited knowledge, they do their best, but the bodies still mount up and the influx of new patients increases day by day. 

The depiction of the flu was well drawn as was the fear of the inhabitants of Butte. But Marsenich also depicts the frustration of the populace, especially when The Board of Health closes the town. Although the reader never meets anyone within The Board of Health the author portrays The Board’s frustration in dealing with doctors who downplayed the severity of the pandemic. Some doctors even began reporting their patients as having pneumonia, instead of the flu, to avoid quarantining the house - from a modern perspective the doctors who had a laissez-faire attitude to the pandemic were causing more misery, more suffering and more death. It is, therefore, unsurprising that The Board of Health designated pneumonia as a contagious illness as well. 

Marika is a character who is very easy to like. All she wants is to pursue a career in medicine, but that possibility is rapidly slipping away. She's worried that now that she's married, her husband will want a more stable life and start a family. Marika is a capable woman who fearlessly cares for the sick, yet her emotional struggles make her very relatable throughout this story. There are moments when the pandemic exhausts her and she cannot bear to witness another patient's demise, but she consistently priorities the needs of the patients over her own. She also cannot shake off the feeling that Amelia did not present with all the same symptoms as she is seeing with her other patients, and she begins to worry that even though her death from the flu was probably inevitable, she fears that there is more to it than the flu, and thus she becomes somewhat of an amateur detective as she tries to piece the puzzle back together. Despite Amelia's brief appearance, her backstory is instrumental in advancing the story.

Kaly’s depiction is wonderfully drawn. Despite a history of abandonment and prostitution, she now has a loving husband and two adorable children. She has also reconnected with her mother. Nevertheless, Kaly’s past of drudgery and humiliation continues to haunt her. Despite everything, she still keeps a small room in the Alley that later serves as a refuge for her best friend, Beth. Kaly's character is defined by unwavering loyalty and a quiet yet powerful strength. Kaly brings a great deal to this story and it was a pleasure getting to know her.

The story's momentum is carried by an unusual character, a dog. It's not often that authors choose to write in the third person subjective, but Marsenich's decision to do so when discussing the dog was a good one. The wolf dog exudes a celestial aura, being both a guardian and a storyteller. It is through the wolf dog’s depiction that the reader learns about the town’s history and also about many of the characters in the novel. The wolf dog fills the gaps in the story with knowledge that the protagonists cannot possibly know. Without the wolf dog, the reader would have been left as bemused as some of the characters are! Through the wolf dog’s characterisation, Marsenich has undeniably showcased her talent as a writer.

The historical backdrop of this novel has been carefully researched. The implications of the mining disaster of 1917 hold a shadow over the community. Following accusations of treason, Frank Little was brutally murdered shortly after he arrived in Butte to help organise The Copper Miners Union, highlighting a complete disregard for both life and his mission to establish safe working conditions and equitable wages. Both the authority of mining companies power over the workers is realistically depicted. As is the red light district. Butte is a tough town where its residents must be resilient and even a bit stubborn to survive. Marsenich has done an outstanding job capturing the essence of Butte during this time.

Milana Marsenich’s “Beautiful Ghost” is an indisputable success. Marsenich's work truly encapsulates the era. This is a story about resilience, survival, and justice. If you enjoy reading quality Historical Fiction then this book really needs to be added to your to-read list.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Mary Anne Yarde
The Coffee Pot Book Club

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Milana Marsenich

Award winning author, Milana Marsenich lives in Northwest Montana near Flathead Lake at the base of the beautiful Mission Mountains. She enjoys quick access to the mountains and has spent many hours hiking the wilderness trails with friends and dogs. For the past 20 years she has worked as a mental health therapist in a variety of settings. As a natural listener and a therapist, she has witnessed amazing generosity and courage in others. She first witnessed this in her hometown of Butte, Montana, a mining town with a rich history and the setting for Copper Sky, her first novel. 

Copper Sky was chosen as a Spur Award finalist for Best Western Historical Novel in 2018. Her second novel, The Swan Keeper, was a Willa Award finalist in 2019. Her short story, Wild Dogs, won the Laura Award for short fiction in 2020. 

She has an M.Ed. in Mental Health Counseling from Montana State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. She has previously published in Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, The Polishing Stone, The Moronic Ox, BookGlow, and Feminist Studies. 

She has three published novels, Copper SkyThe Swan Keeper, and Beautiful Ghost, and one popular history book, Idaho Madams. Her upcoming novel, Shed Girl: A Juliet French Novel, will be released January 2024. Her popular history book, Mary MacLane: Butte’s Wild Woman and her Wooden Heart, will be out sometime in 2025.

Connect with Milana:

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  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful review of Beautiful Ghost. I am thrilled with it and honored to be in such good company.