Influenza and Adolescence

A Death-Struck Year, by Makiia Lucier (HMH Children’s Books)

I read my electronic review copy of A Death-Struck Year this winter while I, like a great many other people, was suffering from this year’s round of flu. I managed to avoid spiraling hypochondria, but reading about the 1918 flu epidemic while dealing with this year’s version of the virus brought things home.

A Death-Struck Year is a coming-of-age novel, written for young adults, but with plenty of substance, so I’d recommend it for adult readers as well. Seventeen-year-old Cleo Berry lives in Portland, Oregon, and is being raised by her significantly older brother and his wife, since she was orphaned as a child. Her guardians take the train on a business/pleasure trip, and Cleo becomes a temporary border at the school she usually attends as a day pupil.

People on the west coast have been reading about the “Spanish” Flu (it probably originated in Kansas, despite the name), which is terrifying, but seems distant. That distance collapses as several soldiers with the illness arrive at an army base outside of Portland and the disease quickly spreads into the population at large. Public gatherings and unnecessary travel are cancelled; Cleo’s guardians cannot return immediately, so she’s quarantined at her school. Until, that is, she decides she’d rather face the terror of the flu in her own home, even if it means living alone during an epidemic, than remain at her school.

The rest of the action of the book results from this first decision. Cleo sees a call in the newspaper for female volunteers to nurse flu victims and, unaware of what she’s about to get herself into, steps up. Her education—in life, mortality, courage, class, even reproductive rights—is swift and shaking.

This book contains a few tropes common to its genre: Cleo is well-off, knows how to drive a car, and has access to her brother’s vehicle; there’s the inevitable love interest; we also see scene after scene in which Cleo faces up to challenges of the moment that threaten to derail her. The thing of it is, these tropes work. Cleo’s experiences feel genuine and vivid, even if they aren’t novel for the genre. Her independence and wealth are counterbalanced by a strong awareness of what’s expected of a girl of her station. The love interest (this isn’t really a spoiler, but stop here if you want) doesn’t end in a fairy-tale match transforming her life; Cleo remains a schoolgirl, but one whose horizons have broadened.

Makiia Lucien appears to have done her research well. She knows the pace at which the disease coursed through Portland, the emergency measures that were put into place during the epidemic, and the technology of the time (could you check the gas level on a tin Lizzie?). The etiology of the disease is rendered in appropriate detail. We see, again and again, a clear picture of how the epidemic would have been experienced by a young woman on her own for the first time.

When you’re hungry for story, this is a great book to turn to. The narrative arc is clear and sure, the central character is engaging, and events are both riveting and plausible.

March 07 2014 08:14 am | Uncategorized

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