Wickett's Remedy

Wickett's Remedy

3.5 9
by Myla Goldberg

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Lydia Kilkenny is eager to move beyond her South Boston childhood, and when she marries Henry Wickett, a shy Boston Brahmin who plans to become a doctor, her future seems assured. That path changes when Henry abandons his medical studies and enlists Lydia to help him invent a mail-order medicine called Wickett’s Remedy. Then the 1918 influenza epidemic sweeps


Lydia Kilkenny is eager to move beyond her South Boston childhood, and when she marries Henry Wickett, a shy Boston Brahmin who plans to become a doctor, her future seems assured. That path changes when Henry abandons his medical studies and enlists Lydia to help him invent a mail-order medicine called Wickett’s Remedy. Then the 1918 influenza epidemic sweeps through Boston, and in a world turned upside down Lydia must forge her own path through the tragedy unfolding around her. As she secures work as a nurse at a curious island medical station conducting human research into the disease, Henry’s former business partner steals the formula for Wickett’s Remedy to create for himself a new future, trying—and almost succeeding—to erase the past he is leaving behind.

Alive with narrative ingenuity, and tinged with humor as well as sorrow, this inspired recreation of a forgotten era powerfully reminds us how much individual voices matter—in history and in life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Brilliant. . . . A wonderfully courageous second novel.” –Newsday

“Remarkable. . . . A historically credible account of the period just after America entered the First World War, when ‘the Spanish Lady’ laid waste to Boston and much of the rest of the country.” –Salon

“Her second novel is of a piece with [Bee Season] in its invention and stylistic skill. . . . A warmhearted, unusual and intelligent consideration of a world about which few people know.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“An engrossing look at how one young woman grows through personal losses at a time when so many lost so much.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

Geraldine Brooks
Wickett's Remedy is peopled by noble working-class families who do not let the strain of poverty prevent them from reveling together in good times and succoring each other in bad. Lydia, the product of this idealized milieu, is its selfless personification, volunteering to nurse flu victims as a way of dealing with grief for her own beloved dead. Goldberg treads a fine line here: Saints can be so uninteresting. But by giving Lydia a questing intelligence and a yearning spirit, Goldberg makes her motivations lucid and plausible. Her romanticized Southie also works, in the end, as a stark foil for the brutalities of a wider world sliding into war and an imperfectly understood epidemic.
— The Washinton Post
Publishers Weekly
The author of the bestselling Bee Season returns with an accomplished but peculiarly tensionless historical novel that follows the shifting fortunes of a young Irish-American woman. Raised in tough turn-of-the-century South Boston, Lydia Kilkenny works as a shopgirl at a fancy downtown department store, where she meets shy, hypochondriacal medical student Henry Wickett. After a brief courtship, the two marry (Henry down, Lydia decidedly up) in 1914. Henry quits school to promote his eponymous remedy, whose putative healing powers have less to do with the tasty brew that Lydia concocts than with the personal letters that Henry pens to each buyer. After failing to pass the army physical as the U.S. enters WWI, Henry quickly, dramatically dies of influenza, and Lydia returns to Southie, where she watches friends, neighbors and her beloved brother die in the 1918 epidemic. A flu study that employs human subjects is being conducted on Boston Harbor's Gallups Island; lonely Lydia signs on as a nurse's assistant, and there finds a smidgen of hope and a chance at a happier future. A pastiche of other voices deepens her story: chapters close with snippets from contemporary newspapers, conversations among soldiers and documents revealing the surprising fate of Wickett's Remedy. And the dead offer margin commentary--by turns wistful, tender and corrective (and occasionally annoying). Yet as well-researched, polished and poignant as the book is, Goldberg never quite locks in her characters' mindsets, and sometimes seems adrift amid period detritus. While readers will admire Lydia, they may not feel they ever truly know her. Agent, Wendy Schmalz. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Through narrative, authentic newspaper clippings, and fictional correspondence, the author of the perfect Bee Season offers an intimate view of the life of Lydia Kilkenny, a shop clerk and daughter of Irish immigrants in South Boston in the early 20th century. She marries Henry Wickett, a frail man from a well-to-do family who intends to please his parents by becoming a doctor, although his fondest wish is to be a journalist. Realizing that he can use his writing abilities to help others, Henry spawns the idea of selling a package to the sick that includes an elixir and an encouraging letter. The elixir, created by Lydia, is meant to be a placebo; the letter is the thing intended to heal. Enter World War I, a merciless flu epidemic, and an opportunist in search of a product, and you have an epic story that is sure to become a classic. Goldberg skillfully stitches together the various pieces of a structurally complex novel, creating smooth, durable, barely-there seams. Like Bee Season, this sorrowful, humorous, and tender novel utterly satisfies. Congratulations to Goldberg on another masterpiece; highly recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/05.]-Jyna Scheeren, Troy P.L., NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-As America is on the brink of entering the Great War, Lydia Kilkenny, a Boston shopgirl, marries Henry Wickett, a young medical student. Shortly thereafter, he casts his studies aside in favor of developing a remedy to help sufferers from "hypochondriacal illnesses." His mail-order business enjoys some success, but when he contracts influenza, Lydia is suddenly left a widow. Before she has time to grieve, Americans find themselves battling a deadly pandemic. Although she has no nursing experience, Lydia feels compelled to help. She joins on as a research assistant to doctors experimenting on inmates to better understand the spread of the disease. A parallel story develops as her husband's onetime business partner steals the formula for Wickett's Remedy and develops a soft-drink empire. Goldberg's re-creation of this fascinating segment of American history is meticulously researched and well executed. Each chapter ends with period newspaper articles and letters that add to the flavor of the story and give subtle insights into unfolding events. The use of voices in the margins of the pages, however, serves more as a distraction than as an asset to the multiple tales that are woven together. The author's closing comments are powerful in their simplicity: more Americans died in this 10-month pandemic than were killed in all of the 20th-century wars.-Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Library System, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The 1918 influenza pandemic is the background for this absorbing successor to Bee Season (2000). Irish-American Lydia Kilkenny moves up from her "Southie" (i.e., South Boston) neighborhood after marrying timid medical student Henry Wickett. When Henry forsakes his studies and returns to clerical drudgery while developing a health-giving elixir (the eponymous Remedy), Lydia senses trouble-but she agrees to concoct a pleasant-tasting recipe. America enters World War I, Henry tries and fails to enlist, and dies when an "unseasonable flu" strikes Boston-having first formed a partnership with entrepreneur-distributor Quentin Driscoll (who has other plans for Wickett's Remedy). First returning to her Southie family, Lydia watches numbly as friends and relatives die, volunteers at a local hospital, then works as an untrained nurse at Gallups Island in Boston Harbor, where doctors study the virulent influenza strain by injecting it into volunteers: inmates from nearby Deer Island Naval Prison. Goldberg's opulent narrative traces the fulfillment of Lydia's deepest fears, and numerous other voices chime in: those of soldiers and sailors sworn to defeat the Kaiser; ordinary citizens enduring both the war and the epidemic; the numerous dead (rendered as acutely dramatic marginal commentary); and revelations of the history of "QD Soda" (the soft drink Driscoll derived from Lydia's recipe), its founder's pathetic decline and his successor's evasive criminality. Only the QD Soda passages (of which there are far too many) misfire in this rich historical re-creation whose energy and ingenuity evoke memories of E.L. Doctorow's classic Ragtime, Steven Millhauser's Pulitzer-winner, Martin Dressler, andThomas McMahon's forgotten picaresque mini-masterpiece McKay's Bees. A fine novel very much in the American vein, and a quantum leap forward for the gifted Goldberg.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.27(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.85(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

On D Street there was no need for alarm clocks: the drays, ever punctual, were an army storming the gates of sleep. The wooden wagons were heavy and low-riding with loud rattling wheels, their broad planks too battered and be­grimed to recall distant origins as trees. Each dray was pulled by horses–two, four, or sometimes six per wagon–pound-ing down nearby Third Street. Windows rattled and floors shook; the sound was a giant hand shaking Lydia Kilkenny’s sleeping shoulders. Each morning she did not awaken to the sound, but inside it. In winter the drays came when the sky was still dark, their pounding hooves sharp reports against the frozen cobblestones. In summer, perhaps because the sky was already pale with light, the sound of the horses seemed kinder.

When her daughter was still a wee thing, Cora Kilkenny recalls Liddie crediting the sound to God waking up all the good Catholics of D Street.

She knew the clattering wagons were bound for Boston proper, but the vague tangle of streets across the Broadway bridge surfaced in her mind with the sound of the horses and resubmerged with its diminishment. As the flow of drays sub-sided–the wagons no longer traveling two by two but single file–pounding hooves gave way to the creak of floorboards and the muffled voices of neighbors. Factory whistles blew. Church bells rang. The vegetable man made his way down D Street shouting, “Fresh tomatoes,” even if there were no tomatoes, because those words distinguished him from the other vegetable men who plied their carts through Southie.

As Lydia stirred, her mother put up water for cocoa and oatmeal. By the time Lydia had the little ones dressed, Michael and their father had finished their morning ablutions and the washbasin was hers alone. By the time she had brushed and pinned her hair, the drays were gone. Indeterminate Boston had once again been vanquished by the certainty of Southie.

Jamie remembers the warm press of his sister’s hands as she lifted him from bed and set him down beside the clothes she had waiting for him, the sound of the horses rattling in­side his head like loose marbles.

South Boston belonged to Lydia as profoundly and word­lessly as her thimble finger. Her knowledge of its streets was more complete than any atlas, her mental maps reflecting changes that occurred from season to season, day to day, and hour to hour. Each time she left 28 D Street–one among a row of identical triple-decker tenements lining the street like so many stained teeth–her route reflected this internal al­manac. If on a Tuesday afternoon her mother wanted flour and jam from Hennessy’s, Lydia would avoid the more direct route along Fifth Street due to her dislike of the soap grease man and his fleshy block of laundry soap. No matter what the errand, Third Street was best avoided in early evening when the flood tide of drays returning to their stables posed a threat to both body and nose.

In deep winter, when ice and hard-packed snow made walking treacherous, West Broadway was the place to catch a ride on the tailboard of a snow dray delivering milk, groceries, or beer, but sledding was best saved for Dorchester Heights. If a good enough sled could be found, and if the streets were not too crowded, it was possible to start at G Street and traverse almost a quarter of the alphabet–all the way to L Street. Whether because he was luckier or a year older, Michael was the superior sledder; at her best Lydia could only make J Street before her sled or her resolve gave out.

Because Dan Kilkenny was an iceman, the whole D Street gang was in thrall to Lydia and Michael in summer. In the thick of that season there were few things more magical than ice–the blocks that emerged, impossibly, from the back of the wagon, steaming not with heat but with cold, the unmis­takable stomp of the iceman conquering the stairwell, gleam­ing blocks of ice piled on his broad back like enormous melting diamonds. Contrary to Father O’Brian’s Sunday de­scriptions of a place streaming with light and angel song, Ly­dia was certain Heaven resembled the interior of her father’s ice wagon: a dark place, cool and quiet. There the salt hay, sawdust, and straw effaced the airborne tang of leather and glue from the nearby shoe factory and muted the call of the ragman.

On very hot days there was no need to confer in advance. The lot of them would be playing ball in Commonwealth Park, or ambling toward the beach at City Point, or playing marbles or Kick the Wicket on the street. Without a word Michael would turn to Lydia, or she toward him, and with a whoop they would preempt the day’s pursuit and set out for ice. At the sight of Dan Kilkenny’s brood, the iceman would toss out an extra block, the surplus ice arcing toward the street in a dream of captured light before exploding into frozen bliss on the cobbles. Decorum was traded for the fleeting comfort of ice pressed into the perfect place. Frozen shatterings found their way into mouths, inside shirts and dresses, under chins, and atop closed eyes. Ice was nestled into the hollows of throats and hammocked by the webbing between fingers and toes. Ice bent the iron rule of summer for a few precious mo­ments before the heat clamped down again.

Had Margaret Kelly, of 32 D Street, claimed an iceman for her da, she would not have been so lordly about it. Liddie and Mick always waited until the worst of the heat and then made them line up for Indian knuckle burns before bringing them down the right street.

For ten years, this was enough. Then in fifth grade, Lydia saw a city map and realized her entire world was the smallest finger of Boston’s broad hand. The hazy destination of the morning drays acquired focus. Across the bridge lay Boston Common and the swan boats of the Public Garden. Across the bridge lay Washington Street–the longest street in all New England–which began like any other but then continued south, a single, determined thread of cobblestone that wove it­self through every town from Boston to Providence. Once Lydia saw Washington Street she knew she could not allow it to exist without her.

She had imagined Washington wide like West Broadway but instead it was narrower, its buildings taller. On Washing­ton, men in blazers and boaters strutted three and four abreast and bustled women drifted cloudlike between shop-windows. The air on Washington smelled neither of factories nor piers but of occasional cigar smoke and wafting perfume. The buildings–with their marble façades and grand en­tranceways and their seemingly endless layers of arched win-dows–resembled fancy wedding cakes. On Washington Street there was not a clothesline in sight, not a single veg­etable or fish man. Striped awnings stretched proudly above showcases containing objects Southie had never seen: a silk opera gown with black glass buttons, a set of tortoiseshell combs, a rocking horse with a mane of real hair. Lydia turned toward Michael–whose trolley fare she had provided from a cache of saved pennies, their passage across the Broadway bridge her eleventh birthday present to herself–and an­nounced that this was her future.

Mick recalls only his dis­appointment. Before Liddie went gaga over Washington Street, they had always pooled their copper for penny fudge.

On graduating eighth grade, when her girlfriends found jobs behind sewing machines, Lydia rode to Washington Street alone and procured a position in the stockroom of Gilchrist’s department store. Now every morning she had to wake before the drays in order to make the streetcar. During dreary hours of inventory and reshelving, her resolve to work on the far side of the bridge would falter, but her doubts van­ished whenever she was called onto the gleaming sales floor. Walking among the wonders of the display rooms, she would calculate the weeks of salary required to purchase a beaded French chapeau or the impossible amount of roast ham that could be eaten in lieu of one opal earring. Rather than discour­aging her, these extreme calculations bred optimism. Once she was promoted to sales, she hoped eventually to save enough so that she too could point to one of those fantastical objects and have it delivered into her outstretched hand.

Michael joked that his sister rode the streetcar every day to make up for never having outdistanced him on a sled. Though he was as immune as the rest of the family to the forces that drew her to Washington Street, he formulated a theory to ex­plain the aberration.

“I don’t know how it came to be,” he informed her once it became clear she would not be abandoning her streetcar com­mute, “but it looks like you turned out the migrating bird in a family of pigeons.” Lydia treasured his gift, picturing herself as she rode the streetcar as one of the long-necked geese whose silhouettes she observed angling south in late autumn.

On the other side of the bridge, Lydia learned the differ­ence between a heavy tub silk and a crepe de chine shirt and the relative merits of a Norfolk versus a sacque suit. She learned that the best suit jackets were nipped in at the waist and slope-shouldered. When a counter girl was fired for tardi­ness, Lydia was ready. She claimed the sales floor for herself.

For four years she worked behind a lustrous wood counter on the store’s ground level, amid polished marble floors and hanging crystal lamps. Gilchrist’s Tiffany rotunda gazed down from three levels above like an emerald eye. Inside her starched, white shirtwaist, her hair piled into a careful bun, she felt as if her best self lurked just beneath her skin, a shim­mery fish that might breach the surface at any moment. Stand­ing before a selection of men’s shirts in a dazzling array of colored fabric, she could eye a man’s collar size, budget, and tastes in a glance and knew, just by looking, the thread count of a cotton shirt or the origins of a piece of silk.

Maisie French, in Col­lars, insists the Tiffany rotunda was blue, not green.

Even after four years, she thrilled at sealing a customer’s payment into a pneumatic capsule and sending it to the cashier for change. Miles and miles of pneumatic tubing crisscrossed Gilchrist’s walls and ceilings. Capsules left Men’s Furnishings on a current of compressed air to travel over Silks and Velvets, over Embroideries and Trimmings, past Veilings, and past Black and Colored Dress Goods. Lydia pictured her cus­tomers’ sales slips speeding past counter girls whispering among themselves in Millinery, past the solitary salesgirl at Umbrellas who every day prayed for rain.

Lydia once visited the Cashier’s Office just to see the verita­ble pipe organ of commerce where each capsule arrived with a thunk, its contents scrutinized by a woman whose hands were bound to smell like money. Lydia wondered if the woman scrubbed the scent from her fingers each night, or if her dreams wafted with visions of wealth. Whenever Lydia re­trieved a returning capsule containing a customer’s correct change, she felt the cold, dry breath of the tube tickle the back of her hand. On slow days she hearkened to Gilchrist’s pneu­matic exhalations. After four years, she still marveled at the notion that money pumped through the store no less fervently than the blood in her veins.

The morning of Lydia’s first lunch with a customer, she had been standing with her back to the sales floor straightening stock when her attention was redirected by a neighboring counter girl, who whispered Lydia’s name once the gentleman had been standing a few moments unattended. The fellow was impressively dressed for someone so clearly uncomfortable in his own skin. His clothing seemed to subsume rather than en­hance his form, as if his legs were no match for worsted wool, his chest unequal to the task of imported linen. Though he was a striking man, Lydia was reminded of a child dressed with care by his mother.

Maisie does not blame Lydia for forgetting her name, as they were not particular friends–but she thinks Lydia’s mem­ory has been awfully kind to Henry Wickett. If the fellow had been a looker, Maisie would have helped him her­self.

“How may I help you?” she asked, having already deter­mined his measurements. She intended to skip straight to silk unless cotton was specifically requested, and then only cambric would do; Fridays were slow and the hardest days in which to meet her sales quota.

“Oh, but you see, you already have helped me,” the man stammered. “I wanted to thank you. The shirt you sold me? My mother liked it very much.”

Henry had not intended to speak at all. Recalling the young woman in Shirts, he had hoped only to observe her from afar. Finding her unengaged, he had ap­proached without thinking.

“Of course!” Lydia lied with professional zeal. She racked her brain for a memory of the sale; normally she was good with faces. “I suppose you’ve come for another shirt,” she of­fered. “I’ve just the thing. We received the shipment this week from Italy–they’re brand new for the season. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the quality.” She hoped to convince him to buy two.

The gentleman shook his head and looked at Lydia with such regret she wondered if she had insulted him, though she could not imagine anyone taking offense at an Italian shirt.

And here the gentle lie of Lydia’s memory is re­vealed, for had Henry’s features been distinctive she would not have for­gotten them. Vision is memory at its most fickle. It is practically impossible to retain the homeliness of unfamil­iar features once they have grown dear.

“Ah no,” he replied with a quavering sigh. “Thanks all the same, but I don’t intend to make any purchase today.” He was blushing with unusual violence. “I was hoping I might accom­pany you to lunch. To thank you. You see, my mother really did like the shirt and she is so often hard to please. You were very kind and patient, and I thought it was the least I could do.”

“You want to take me to lunch?” Lydia echoed.

Henry credits his un­characteristic boldness to the obvious pleasure the young woman in Shirts took in even the smallest aspects of her work. Such élan could not be purchased, even at Gilchrist’s.

“To thank you,” the fellow repeated. Though he appeared to be in his twenties, he had the demeanor of a much older man. “For your assistance. That is, if you’re permitted?” With her silence, his blush returned. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry. I haven’t even intro­duced myself. My name is Henry Wickett. You can be certain of my good intentions, and if my motives prove unseemly you could easily wallop me yourself.” By this time the fellow’s voice had grown so soft Lydia could barely hear him above the bustle of the store.

Meet the Author

Myla Goldberg is the author of the bestselling Bee Season, which was named a New York Times Notable Book in 2000 and made into a film, and, most recently, of Time’s Magpie, a book of essays about Prague. Her short stories have appeared in Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and failbetter. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Brief Biography

Brooklyn, New York
Date of Birth:
November 19, 1971
Place of Birth:
Washington, D.C.
B.A., Oberlin College, 1993

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Wickett's Remedy 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
bookaddictNC More than 1 year ago
Wickett's Remedy is one of the odder books I have read. In the midst of the story, which is quite good, the author interupts herself with asides from minor characters (or unknown characters!), odd advertisements from an imaginary beverage company, and bizzaar time-period vignettes. I cannot say it does not work; I am just not sure it is for me. I tend to be a bit more linear. I have to hand it to Myla Goldberg, Wickett's remedy is unlike any of the thousand plus books I previously read. Therefore, it deserves a reading on originality alone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Interesting but I felt it lacked a satisfactory ending, it just seemed to taper off at the end. I was engaged through the book and I learned a lot about the feel of the time and the terror of the epidemic. I also liked the comments of the ghosts that were in the margins of the books--that is what intrigued me when I heard the interview on NPR. I'm glad I read the book, but the lack of a solid ending is disappointing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you liked Bee Season, you should try this book. I went to see Myla Goldberg speak in Atlanta at Agnes Scott College and I was so amused and impressed by her speech that I bought Wickett's Remedy immediately. She was very honest about the difficulties of publishing a second book, after the success of a previous book. She takes risks in this book and she acknowledges that some readers may not like what she has done but her approach is intriguing. I enjoyed the book but I would rather read a writer who challenges herself to reach new heights than a writer who plays it safe by cranking out the same formulaic drivel. Keep writing Myla, my daughter and I will keep reading!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I heard Myla Goldberg interviewed on NPR and decided to give this a try. I love period pieces and this one really captured the essence of the 1918 flu epidemic. The only downside: several plotlines going on at once. Consequently she had a hard time finding closure to all of them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was impossible for me to put down. I usually don't like this sort of historical, emtional books, but Goldberg really makes Lydia's life relatable. Lydia immidiately sucks you into her emotional rollercoaster of a life. In the margins of the book you also get to see the imput from the vioces of the dead. These notes are often really funny. The history of Boston was also surprisingly interesting.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was impossible for me to put down. I usually don't like this sort of historical, emtional books, but Goldberg really makes Lydia's life relatable. Lydia immidiately sucks you into her emotional rollercoaster of a life. In the margins of the book you also get to see the imput from the vioces of the dead. These notes are often really funny. The history of Boston was also surprisingly interesting.