Author: Makiia Lucier
Publish Date: March 4th 2014 by HMH Books for Young Readers
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.I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. I used to read a fair amount of historical romance fiction, but not for the history ;). When I read the synopsis of A Death-Struck Year, I kid you not, the first thing I thought of was Edward Cullen from Twilight. He was “turned” during the Spanish Influenza in 1918, and that’s about the extent on what I knew about that time, fictionally. As for the actual events, I was clueless. Luckily, there is a lot of information about the flu in the story, and for a novice such as myself, it helped. But I can see how readers would be turned off by all the descriptions and lists of symptoms that are involved in the discussions/conversations by the characters.
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.
(Minor/medium spoilers ahead…)
The majority of YA novels are about the main character finding a purpose or going on a mission, and I felt that Cleo Berry, our protagonist, was able to find herself coincidentally due to this awful flu pandemic. One of the first impressions we get of Cleo is that she’s a seventeen year old girl who has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She’s in the upper class, so she has more opportunities than most girls her age in her time, but she’s still stuck. All her classmates have plans of college or careers, and she spends her time looking through magazines/books about possible careers that make her less sure of herself in her transition to adulthood. As the story progresses, we get to see Cleo step out of her upper class comfort zone and take it upon herself to help those who can’t help themselves, by assisting the Red Cross as a volunteer. She has a rough go of it her first few days, but it just goes to show how seriously the flu spread and crippled the nation. Since Cleo lives with her brother and sister-in-law, we don’t find out what happened to her parents right away, but it helps fuel Cleo’s reasoning behind her decision to volunteer with the Red Cross.
Sometimes in YA novels, friendships take a backseat to the romance, but I was happy to see that Cleo was able to form strong friendships with the people she met and worked with, especially Kate – another volunteer. Kate comes from a huge family – 13 siblings in total, so we see two different dynamics in family. As Cleo is a decade younger than her brother, she is seen more as an only child, as her brother raised her when her parents died. Kate, who has 12 siblings ranging in adulthood to infantry, definitely has a middle child syndrome attitude going on. Most of her older sisters and mother were nurses, so she feels pressured into following in their footsteps. But one particularly beautiful scene, we see that Kate is actually a talented pianist, who had to put her dream on hold because of the flu. When Kate becomes infected, it’s as if the soul of the story is represented in her circumstance. Kate was offered a full ride to a prominent music school in NYC, and had to put it all on hold to help with the epidemic, to just eventually die alongside those she was helping. Pulling at my heart strings even more, was the fact that she got sick the day that a shipment of vaccinations arrived, with instructions that it did not work on those who were already sick with the flu. This is where I put my book down and thought out loud, quite loudly in the middle of the library, ‘life sucks!” If I wasn’t holding a book, I think I would have been kicked out…
As for the romance, Cleo meets a young Lt. Doctor, Edmund, who’s working at the Auditorium that the Red Cross is operating out of. And thankfully, it’s not love at first sight. It’s slow going, and has some sweet moments, but it’s very chaste. It’s important to remember that Cleo would have never met Edmund if not for the flu outbreak, and that a girl of her class would never have socialized with men her age in such circumstances. Cleo finds herself in situations unfamiliar, and the way she handles them couldn’t have been practiced or planned. There are a few scenes where Cleo walks in on characters half dressed, or men not wearing shirts, and I’m reminded that it’s 1918 when it was scandalous to be presented in any other fashion besides completely reserved. A small instance of this was when Kate gives Cleo a birth control pamphlet, which at the time was practically illegal. It was interesting to see Lucier put that bit in, as if the flu wasn’t the only thing during that time that was challenging people. I think if the story wasn’t focused around the Red Cross and their efforts to help, it would have seemed extremely out of place. I read it as an attempt at humor in the story, to help balance out the seriousness of the flu. I would have liked to see more happen, other than Cleo reading it and dropping it, then having Edmund pick it up and say that he’s read the work of the nurse who wrote it. I wouldn’t have minded if it was developed more into the story, seeing as how Cleo was trying to figure out what to do with her life before surviving past 1918 was an issue.
At the end of the story is a sliver of what their community looks like at the end of the pandemic, when the Auditorium goes back to being a music hall, and when Edmund has to go back to school to continue his education. It’s unclear as to what Cleo will do with herself, after finishing school, and that’s sort of a let down, but I guess it’s up to the reader to decide if she goes into a life of ‘helping others’ or not. I think the ending thought Lucier leaves us with is that things happen in our lives and we can either choose to adapt and grow with the experience or put it behind us as if it never happened.
I’d recommend this novel to anyone interested in a YA that focuses on a pandemic from the past, that isn’t so much concerned with romance or action – but real life events and the effects they have on society/community. Or even someone who’s interested in the time period of 1918 might find this to be enjoyable.