Faced with matters of life or death, faced with a worldwide pandemic like H5N1 (avian flu) that kill 40% of the world’s population, what are the things that would keep you and your family together? What are the most important, most vital things in you life?
Author Carla Buckley’s page-turning debut, The Things That Keep Us Here, explores this engrossing subject. In her novel, H5N1 is in full deadly force in the U.S.. The World Health Organization has required schools and businesses to close indefinitely. Food and water supplies dwindle, medical help becomes more and more difficult to get, and the body count mounts in this apocalyptic thriller.
Various authors - like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Walter Greatshell, and David Black - who have tackled the topic of what might eventually bring civilization to its knees, but Buckley brings power to her apocalyptic vision by focusing primarily on the microcosm of one family: Ann and Peter Brooks, and their daughters, Maddie and Kate. Even before the onset of the avian flu their family was falling apart; veterinarian father and biology professor Peter had filed for divorce. Ironically, the avian flu brings the family together - at least under the same roof again - while the pandemic rages.
Peter is among the first people in Ohio to notice that something is going terribly wrong. Investigating the deaths of wild ducks, he is led by hunters to the place where they discovered two dead teals. He and his Egyptian-born graduate assistant, Shazia, conduct tests on those dead birds and others, and the results confirm their worst fears: the ducks are infected with the H5N1 virus.
When Peter moves back in to his and Ann’s old house, it’s with Shazia.. He has tried to help her find lodging at the university where he teaches and she takes classes, but the school has no record of her current enrollment. After unsuccessfully searching for a place for her to stay, Ann invites them both to live in her house until the pandemic is over. She intuits some romantic relationship between them, but she offers them the hospitality of her home anyway.
A strange mood develops in the Brooks household. Even trusted neighbors and friends of the Brooks daughters are held in suspicion of whether or not they may be infected with the H5N1 flu. One neighbor, upon seeing Peter for the first time in nearly a year, suggests that they all get together for a communal barbecue as they had in the past. Peter nixes the idea - not because he doesn’t like the neighbors or think it’s a kind gesture on their part, but out of concern for the health of his family. When another girl comes over without Ann knowing about it beforehand and jumps on the girls’ trampoline, after the girl leaves, Ann wonders if she’d heard her cough. Her suspicions are not, it turns out, all that paranoid, as neighbor after neighbor contracts the deadly flu.
Basic needs, survival, and the closeness and love of one’s family become the most important things. They try to keep some holiday traditions alive as much as they can, but at Thanksgiving they have to eat chicken instead of turkey - that is the closest fowl that they have, and most stores are either low on food or are out of it altogether. Men on some of the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico come down with the avian flu, making fuel yet another scarce commodity. This raises the prices of other commodities, since the trucking industry relies on diesel.
The Brooks family also find themselves caring for a neighbor’s six-month-old baby and having to live through the winter without heat or electricity. They adopt a starving dog and go out on excursions to the city to scavenge supplies and food and water.
Carla Buckley interviewed several leading scientists at Ohio State University as well as the head of preparedness at OSU, and it is clear that she has done her research well. The realism she brings to The Things That Keep Us Here makes the turmoil and struggles of the Brooks family come alive for readers.