Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Journal of the Plague Year: A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier


"Hmmm?" I hunched over Emily's doll. The light in the stairway was poor, and I wondered if I should fix the doll back in my room near a window. I dismissed the thought. Fanny was there, more snappish than usual. When there was no response from Emily, I glanced up. The child looked at me, uncertain.

"In the library I heard Mr. Brownmiller and Miss Abernathy talking...." Emily said softly.

I paused. "What did you hear?"

"Well, Mr. Brownmiller said that people in Phil..., Phila...."

"Philadelphia?" I prompted.

"He said people in Philadelphia were dropping like flies. Because of the Spanish influenza. He said they were running out of coffins. Is that true, Cleo? Are we going to drop dead, too?" Emily's voice quivered.

Cleo resents being shuttled off for a month of dormitory life at the girls' school where she has always been a day student, while her guardians, older brother Jack and wife Lucy, are away for a vacation in San Francisco.  Sharing a small room with four restless seniors, all ready to move on with their life plans, has made her discontented with her own lack of  motivation. Cleo vaguely wants to go to college, but has no idea what the purpose of her life may be.

Although she tries to reassure little Emily and herself that the epidemic is thousands of miles away from Portland, Cleo soon hears that a troop of soldiers just arrived from Boston have begun to sicken and die and watches life changing all around her. Schools, churches, theaters and even stores close, as people don masks and avoid contact as much as possible. Then, when her school orders all residential students home, Cleo decides to slip away in the confusion of departures and stay put alone in the safety in her house until Jack and Lucy return.

But Lucy, pregnant with a long-hoped-for child, cannot yet travel, and when Cleo finds herself on her own, the silence in the house on her first night is not as welcome as she had thought. Unable to sleep, she pulls out a newspaper she bought on the way home and reads a surprising notice:


The American Red Cross has issued an urgent plea that all graduate nurses, practical nurses, and Red Cross nurses' aides enroll for immediate service in combating the Spanish influenza.

Also needed are members of the community willing to canvass neighborhoods, distributing prevention literature and helping to locate and transport unattended cases to area hospitals. Those with automobiles are particularly encouraged to make themselves known.

The words "unattended cases" leap out, and her heart turns over, remembering how her parents died in a carriage accident, her mother slowly bleeding to death as the six-year-old Cleo watched while no one came.

I thought of my mother and father. Twelve years had passed, but I still knew exactly what it was to be an unattended case.

There are two cars in the garage, both of which Jack has taught her to drive. Perhaps, Cleo thinks, she can at least help locate those unattended cases.

But when Cleo puts on the Red Cross armband, she has no idea of the horrors before her. Soon she is working with Edward, a young soldier injured in the war in France, and with Kate, a brave young woman her own age, even helping dig graves for the unburied coffins stacking up in the morgues.

But then Kate is suddenly taken gravely ill, and Cleo knows that she may well be next.

Maciia Lucier's A Death-Struck Year (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is a hard-hitting story of that worldwide pandemic that killed more people than the historic Black Plague and World War I together. What Cleo and Lucier's other closely-drawn characters lived through is what many millions experienced in those two years of the pandemic which, along with the war that helped spread it, changed the world forever. A stunningly realistic picture of desperate courage, young love, and human endurance, this is a page-turning, eye-opening piece of young adult historic fiction which resonates today in a time of the instant spread of epidemic diseases unknown to us.

A twentieth-century account similar to Laurie Halse Anderson's Newbery-winning classic, Fever 1793., this novel offers historical notes and a bibliography which make this absorbing first-person narrative useful as adjunct reading for students of American history.

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