Review: Salvation City, by Sigrid Nunez

After thirteen-year-old Cole Vining lost both parents in a flu pandemic, he was taken in by Wyatt and Tracy, a young evangelical couple living in Salvation City.  Cole’s family had only recently moved from Chicago to southern Indiana when the pandemic hit. Cole had been sick, but survived, although he suffered some memory loss.  Since he had no other family, he was placed in an orphanage with scores of children who suffered a similar fate.  Pastor Wyatt (PW) and Tracy, unable to have children of their own, felt called by God to provide for an orphan.

Salvation City is an evangelical community that sprung up around the church.  Their fundamentalist beliefs and values are foreign to Cole, whose family did not practice religion.  Prayer is a regular part of life, and he is home-schooled by Tracy whose own education did not adequately prepare her for this role.  But he is well cared for, even loved.  As Cole recovers, his memory also returns and the reader learns more about his parents, their awful deaths, and the social and economic havoc resulting from the pandemic.  Cole also begins to see PW and Tracy in a new light, as human beings with all the usual flaws.  He is then faced with situations that cause him to question the prevailing values in Salvation City, his own beliefs, and what he wants from life.

While Cole’s personal drama was interesting, I found descriptions of the pandemic most realistic and disturbing.  In the abstract, it’s easy to assume that if a real pandemic struck everything would work out.  But in this book, medical supplies ran out, food was scarce, and healthcare professionals simply couldn’t keep up.  Some people died because of the flu’s severity, but many more died simply because they were unable to receive care.  People who failed to take preventive measures early were most likely to suffer.  I was struck by just how probable it all was.  And one day while I was reading this book, my husband coughed and I nearly panicked, thinking he might be afflicted.  The book felt that real.

While something about Cole’s story fell a bit flat at the end, this was a chilling story that will stay with me for a while.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 7

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4 thoughts on “Review: Salvation City, by Sigrid Nunez

  1. Great review, Laura. I reviewed that book for Belletrista last year and had a different take on it than you, but I don’t disagree with what you say.

    • Joyce, thanks for your comment, it reminded me that I like to link to Belletrista reviews so I’ve added the link to my post. Your review was excellent, btw, and I remember reading it at the time. I was expecting PW and Tracy to come across as “evil” or “crazy” (that might be my own bias coming out there … ), and I was impressed with Nunez’s balanced portrayal.

  2. Is this about a specific pandemic like the one in 1918, or an imagined future disaster? For me one of the most interesting aspects of Mary Doria Russell’s book ‘Dreamers of the Day’ was her description of what happened in 1918.

    • Annie, I should have been more clear in my review. Salvation City is set in the very near future. The society is much like our own, but gone awry. I read it thinking, this is what could have happened if H1N1 had gone out of control. And thanks for the Russell recommendation, I’ve heard of that book but didn’t know what it was about.

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