I received this book free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on March 4, 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction
A deadly pandemic, a budding romance, and the heartache of loss make for a stunning coming-of-age teen debut about the struggle to survive during the 1918 flu.
For Cleo Berry, the people dying of the Spanish Influenza in cities like New York and Philadelphia may as well be in another country--that's how far away they feel from the safety of Portland, Oregon. And then cases start being reported in the Pacific Northwest. Schools, churches, and theaters shut down. The entire city is thrust into survival mode--and into a panic. Headstrong and foolish, seventeen-year-old Cleo is determined to ride out the pandemic in the comfort of her own home, rather than in her quarantined boarding school dorms. But when the Red Cross pleads for volunteers, she can't ignore the call. As Cleo struggles to navigate the world around her, she is surprised by how much she finds herself caring about near-strangers. Strangers like Edmund, a handsome medical student and war vet. Strangers who could be gone tomorrow. And as the bodies begin to pile up, Cleo can't help but wonder: when will her own luck run out?
Riveting and well-researched, A Death-Struck Year is based on the real-life pandemic considered the most devastating in recorded world history. Readers will be captured by the suspenseful storytelling and the lingering questions of: what would I do for a neighbor? At what risk to myself?
An afterword explains the Spanish flu phenomenon, placing it within the historical context of the early 20th century. Source notes are extensive and interesting.
It’s 1918 in Portland, Oregon and 17-year-old Cleo Berry is living temporarily in the dormitory of her school when her guardians, her older brother and his wife, leave on vacation to celebrate their anniversary. Soon after their departure the news everyone has been dreading arrives: the Spanish influenza has made its way to the west coast. After her school is shut down, Cleo decides to sneak back home to wait for her brother to get back to town. She inevitably decides to assist the Red Cross after a newspaper advertisement shows them asking for volunteers, preferably those with transportation.
There were a few things that initially drew me to this book. One: This reminded me a lot of In the Shadow of Blackbirds which I enjoyed immensely. I had never read anything about the 1918 Spanish influenza but I was riveted by the details of that time period. Two: I loved the idea of this girl volunteering to assist in something so dreadful. I knew she had to be an amazing main character to persevere through something like that. Unfortunately, what I found most intriguing about this book didn’t pan out for me.
The details regarding the Spanish influenza were detailed and clearly well-researched but the story as a whole managed to lack an emotional intensity especially when you consider the devastation going on. The story is told from the point of view of Cleo and she gives us a firsthand account of her day to day life while the influenza spreads through Portland like wildfire. We’re witnesses to the deaths of men, women and children but there was a seemingly unintentional disconnect like Cleo wasn’t truly living in the moment but as if we’re being giving a secondhand accounting instead. It all felt very subdued and didn’t generate the type of emotion I think I should have been feeling given the subject matter. In addition to the lack of emotion, I missed the lack of effect the war was having on the states. There was only brief references to the war going on and soldiers coming home but the people didn’t seem to be effected by hardship due to rations or anything of the sort. I realize that by 1918 we’re at the tail end of the war but it still had a serious impact on peoples way of life for many more months.
As I stated above, I loved the idea of this young girl deciding to assist in helping the Red Cross during this tragedy when she didn’t have to. I loved the idea of this experience having a maturing effect on her and causing a form of transformation. But after about the fifth time she mentioned she had forgotten her mask after walking into a house stock full of sick people I had just about had enough. Putting on your mask to help prevent against the flu isn’t difficult. You’re nursing people that are hacking up a lung and bleeding all over the place and you’re like, “Oops! I left it in the car.” Seriously?!
Every time this would happen it only succeeded in completely enraging me and throwing off the flow of the story. She kept saying throughout the story that she’s not a child and that she can take care of herself when in fact her actions told a completely different story. Cleo could have been an amazing character for me but her complete disregard for her own health was ridiculous and only proved to me that maybe she should have stayed home.
The budding romance, as the summary describes it, is a perfect description. We don’t ever get to witness the bud come to fruition and bloom, we only receive the hints of it. But the ‘budding’ itself between Cleo and Edmund wasn’t anything to get excited about and there really was zero chemistry between the two. I honestly don’t see the reason or purpose for it being a part of the story.
As much as I wanted to love this one, I wasn’t impressed. The story was well written and the research was evident but the the lack of characterization completely killed the story for me. When writing about something as devastating as the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic then I would expect to be completely enshrouded in the desolation of the event and I wasn’t.