Book Review: October Birds

Have you ever been inside your local county health department? Who goes there, who works there, and what do they do there? October Birds explores a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding public health and sociological practice through social fiction. Increasingly popular with students, social fiction is introduced through the pretend societies, people and circumstances presented in lifelike scenarios in fiction, gaming and fantasy worlds. Through the decidedly appealing format, readers are introduced to subjects of social justice, oppression, privilege, and possibilities. Social fiction introduces us to ideas of future society in much the same way as science fiction brings the possibilities of what future science might entail. We imagined the possibility of talking to those in distant places and the telephone was invented. We imagined going to the moon and we did.

Muhammad Yunus, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, strongly believes in the power of social fiction. Social scientists should follow the path of make believe, in the same way as science fiction. What can be imagined today can be reality tomorrow, states Muhammad Yunus on creating social fiction. Themes of social problems dominate the emerging genre of social fiction, whether it be poverty, unemployment, racial and class conflicts, or health pandemics.

As Yunus imagines, social fiction may introduce the reader to the concepts of a remarkable world without poverty or unemployment. On the other hand, Jessica Smartt Gullion invites the reader to envision a frightening account of how quickly links of society unravel at the onset of a calamitous health crisis.

In real life, Gullion served as the Chief Epidemiologist for one of the largest county health departments in Texas. From this experience the author creates a fictitious account of medical chaos. Gullion, primarily a researcher in areas related to coping with community health threats, was aware of the consequences from historical pandemics. The Plague of Justinian beginning in Constantinople (Istanbul Turkey) is said to have claimed 10,000 people per day beginning in 541 A.D. and possibly killing half of Europe and Asia’s population by the 700s. Black Death of Bubonic Plague is believed to have claimed 25 million people in the 1300s. In London, one in five inhabitants succumbed to the pandemic in the 1600s. Modernity did not save us. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic infected twenty percent of the world’s population, proving most deadly for people ages 20-40. SARS swept the headlines in 2003. “Swine Flu” erupted in 2009, and that was the year Dr. Gullion sat at her desk inside the county health department. Her telephone began to ring.

In a matter of weeks, the social fiction came to life as hundreds of people are dead and thousands more became ill. ‘October Birds recounts how disease could spread within a Texas community or your community…and beyond. The next global pandemic may be only one patient away. Are they sitting in your county health department or local hospital? As the frequency and accessibility to travel continues to increase for ever greater numbers of people, coping with a pandemic could mean lying in a hospital in a country where you do not speak the language. Social and cultural values and norms may dictate who gets treated and what kinds of treatment patients receive.

October Birds begins the tale of public health practice, emergency medicine, and the sociological context related to power and dominance in the medical profession. In October Birds, Gullion reveals through the background of a rapidly escalating pandemic, the social circumstances of collective behavior, emergency management, ethics in medicine, crisis counseling, critical incident stress management, modern families, Hispanic culture in America, and the value of non-Western medical practices.

Discussion questions for book clubs or classrooms are redolent throughout. Such as, what comparisons can be made between the social fiction characters and their attempts at work-life balance? Working late one night, Dr. Eliza Gordon struggles with how to explain to her husband she is still at work struggling with the chaos emerging from the pandemic. “He would put Sophie on the phone – say hello to Mommy, we won’t see her tonight – really ratcheting up the guilt meter. She decided to email him instead and call later.”

Meanwhile, the grizzled Dr. Cromwell admits two failed marriages might have partly been the result of his affair with his mistress – the practice of medicine “vastly more interesting than any woman he’d ever met.”

Jack, the incident commander, “finally cried all of his tears” as he leaned on his colleague, Dr. Gordon. He had no other place to turn when his partner, Nabil, succumbs to the pandemic while at home alone.

The curanderas avoided the city’s health department and the hospital. But the pandemic crosses all sections of the society. “She wanted to be welcoming to her patients without actually advertising her clinic. Because many of her patients were not in the US legally….”

When medical provisions are in short supply who determines the triage for care? “He was an old man, with a poor prognosis. The woman is a young mother. She is improving.” Debates of ethics, power, and politics are available at every turn of the crisis.

October Birds is the latest release in the Social Fiction Series by Sense Publishers. Social fiction is an emerging genre that should prove popular with both the public and academia. Each title is prefaced by the author with research and teaching remarks that emphasize the social science or scholarly perspective presented in the novel. With the increasing recognition of arts-based research, October Birds is a narrative that will have any student, health care practitioner, or person who reads enthralled with the true possibilities of what might be transpiring inside the walls of their local county health department.   

Dian Jordan is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Texas Permian Basin

Categories: Reviews


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