That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Around the world, countries and families cope with the pandemic, its impacts and the decisions about how to keep safe from a fast-moving virus. From his home in Amsterdam, Erik Raschke sees this history-making event as a father of young sons and dual citizen and asks where is the safest home during the age of COVID-19. ​

The Herd

by Erik Raschke

My family was skiing in the northern Italian Alps when we first heard that the COVID-19 virus had come to Europe. My wife, a seasoned hypochondriac, was surprisingly calm, even though she assiduously educated us to the danger of the virus. We left Italy among swaths of carnival partiers packing the slopes and streets, and made our way back to Amsterdam. It felt as if we had narrowly escaped a storm. However, my ten-year old son came down with a fever soon after we returned and could barely move from bed. He was hardly ever sick, but now he had spots, a fever, a dry cough.


My son had been fascinated with pandemics ever since our trip to the National Museum in Washington, DC, the year before, which had a whole floor dedicated to SARS, Ebola, AIDS, etc. We spent the afternoon learning about viruses, missing out on the dinosaurs, cavemen, and everything in between. In fact, we loitered by the Ebola diorama for almost an hour, searching for the answer over whether it hurt to bleed from your eyeballs.


Back in Amsterdam, my son wondered if he might be the Netherlands’ patient zero. We called our family doctor and to my son’s surprise and secret joy, doctors came in hazmat suits and swabbed him for Corona. We took him out of school for two weeks and his friends all told him that they were jealous.


“We left Italy among swaths of carnival partiers packing the slopes and streets, and made our way back to Amsterdam. It felt as if we had narrowly escaped a storm.”

We were promised a forty-eight-hour response by the National Health Service. But after forty-eight hours we still hadn’t heard anything. Most of the people manning the lines were retired and tried to calm me with scripted lines on cue cards. My wife worried that her upcoming television interview with a hermetic, frail, and elusive eighty-nine-year-old Dutch writer, Tonke Dragt, who wrote The Letter for the King, a book recently remade by Netflix, might be in jeopardy. When the negative results for my son were finally returned, my wife jumped in a taxi and made it to the interview just in time, having kept her distance even before social distancing had been introduced.


A week later, Mark Rutte, our prime minister, announced that the Dutch approach to COVID-19 would be what he called “herd immunity.” There were three ways to approach the virus, he said, do nothing, do a little, or do a lot. The Dutch are known for choosing the middle option, so the way forward was clear. We’d do a little. Rutte seemed sure that we had enough ICU beds, that our country could take the beating until our population reached a 60-70 percent immunity, at which point, we as a society would be immune. I’m a Dutch citizen and have lived here for almost fourteen years, but I don’t consider myself Dutch enough to be part of their herd, much less any herd. However, to fly back to America, where I could be free and independent to super-spread, seemed equally dangerous. Also, the last time I was in a hospital in the US, my youngest son had choked on a wonton, and we wound up with a $30,000 bill. How much would it cost for a whole family with COVID-19?


“I’m a Dutch citizen and have lived here for almost fourteen years, but I don’t consider myself Dutch enough to be part of their herd, much less any herd.”

Dutch socialized medicine, at least in Amsterdam, is great if you are healthy or you are really sick. Everything in between puts you on an interminable waitlist. Three years ago, I could barely get out of bed. They did a blood test and told me my liver values were off the charts. I waited to see a specialist to learn if I had cancer, cirrhosis, or if I was just going to die of something exotic. Two months later, when I finally got an appointment to see the specialist, she informed me that I had had two separate viruses, at the same time, in my liver.


She said without irony, “This could have killed you. What took you so long to see me?”


The national health institute announced recently that the Netherlands had the lowest death rate since the pandemic began in earnest. My ten-year-old son is returning to school next week, on an adjusted schedule. He often quotes the movie Contagion, and I see that this experience has given him a real working knowledge of something that had, up until this point, been limited to his imagination.


“My ten-year-old son...often quotes the movie Contagion, and I see that this experience has given him a real working knowledge of something that had, up until this point, been limited to his imagination.”

My home city of Denver recently made the front page of Het Parool, Amsterdam’s newspaper. It was a photo of men and women waving American flags and demanding “freedom,” the kind of jingoism that Europeans love to mock. It was bittersweet seeing the place I love portrayed as a cartoon.


People often ask me why I need two passports and I always reply that if another world war breaks out I’d rather have the American than the Dutch army behind me. But I never considered where I’d want to be during a pandemic. We still haven’t hit herd immunity in the Netherlands and who knows what the future will bring. I can’t say I feel safe here, but I also can’t say I’d feel any safer in America, knowing that the president’s scrawny son-in-law is in charge, a man who looks as if he’s a fellow diner waiting for you to leave so he can steal your tip. I guess all we can do is keep staying home, which for a writer, is in a quiet room. This is the new as well as our old norm. And, I guess, it doesn’t matter where that room is, whether it be in America or the Netherlands.


Author of the forthcoming THP novel

To the Mountain, Erik Raschke received an MA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. His first novel, The Book of Samuel, was translated into Italian and nominated for the prestigious Printz award. His short stories and essays have been published in, among others, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Hazlitt, De Volkskrant, and Guernica. He became a dual Dutch and American citizen in 2013. He lives in Amsterdam with his wife and three boys and currently teaches writing at the University of Amsterdam.  ​


This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.


The months ahead will be challenging for arts and cultural organizations, including Torrey House Press. Connection though story will help us all manage the difficulties of navigating the unknowns ahead, and THP will be innovating more ways to give authors a platform to inspire and comfort. We’ll need your help to do it. You can help Torrey House Press weather this by making a donation of any amount today. 


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