Book Review: A Death Struck Year by Makiia Lucier
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.
It probably is weird, but I love a good plague. I recorded and watch the movie Contagion often. I have been excited for months to see the premiere of the new series The Last Ship. So I have been very excited to read this book, and it did not disappoint.
A Death Struck Year tells the story of Cleo during the Spanish Influenza outbreak in the early 1900s. When we first meet her, she is in a boarding school for a short period of time while her brother and his wife, her guardians, are on a trip. As the outbreak begins spreading, the school is quarantined, large gatherings are prohibited, etc. Cleo sneaks out of the school to go home understanding that she will not be permitted to return.
At home, Cleo volunteers for the Red Cross where she goes out and knocks on doors to distribute safety brochures. On her very first day she comes to a home where the family is severely ill and gets them to the makeshift hospital. Overwhelmed by what she has seen, she isn’t sure if she can come back the next day, but as someone who suffered an accident herself and was saved by another she is motivated to return time and time again because she knows that if she doesn’t these people will die alone in their homes.
A Death Struck Year excels in some of the storytelling elements that draw me to the epidemic crisis genre. By focusing on this single town, Lucier really captures the intense, claustrophobic feeling that happens when you realize the world is both much smaller and much bigger than you realized in the face of impending death and despair. Readers get to know individual characters and then, because this is the reality of life, we learn that many of them do no make it.
For me, a person who is not a huge historical fiction reader, it was truly fascinating to read about a real life epidemic in a historical setting and more fully understand how the limitations of the time contributed to the rapid spread of the disease. For example, the medical advancements we have today weren’t available and that plays a part in the treatment of those who succumb. And Cleo’s family has a harder time getting home during this crisis because they must travel by train. It was so very interesting to read about cranking one’s car to get it started and how the telephone operator would just shut off a call because it was determined as she listened that the call wasn’t an emergency. These historical details really interested me and were a fascinating part of Cleo’s story.
Cleo herself was a rich and interesting character because day after day she must make the unselfish decision to put herself in harm’s way to help those in this great time of need. She defies some cultural norms with her strong, fiercely independent choices. It is through her eyes that was see this pandemic play out, which gives it a fierce immediacy that draws you in.
There is a little chaste romance that begins to bloom in the midst of our story and I liked the authenticity of it, the way that Cleo and Edmund slowly and realistically were drawn to each other. As I read it I thought to myself, my homeschoolers and Inspirational fiction readers who are drawn to historical fiction will really love this story. Although I did also note that a scene where Cleo and her friend discuss stealing and reading a brochure on birth control (including douching, which we now know is not a form of birth control at all) would be an issue for some.
For an interesting companion read, check out Plus One by Elizabeth Fama which is set in a dystopian present day based on rules established as a result of the events of this same Spanish Flu outbreak. Or check out any of these additional YA novels that involve outbreaks. And of course, readers who enjoyed A Death Struck Year would also really enjoy Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.
SLJ gives A Death Struck Year a starred review (4/01/2014). I highly recommend A Death Struck Year for its solid characterization, pitch perfect pacing, fierce immediacy and the spot on insight into a town plagued by a very deadly disease.
Released in March 2014 from Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 9780544164505
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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