Friday, October 30, 2015

A Single Race of the Dead: People of the Plague by T. Neill Anderson

Barium could see Mr. Milani on the right, lying on his back. His face was darkened, and his nose and mouth were covered with dark red blood. He looked at Mrs. Milani, curled up beside her husband. Her face was the same purplish blue. They were both gone.

Barium stepped out of the Milani's apartment building. While waiting for him, Harriet and Harry Milani had drawn a hopscotch course on the sidewalk, and now they were jumping through it. Harry giggled, and Harriet laughed and rolled her eyes at her little brother's rule-breaking.

Barium smiled at the two children, whose lives he knew would never be the same. He wanted to stretch out this time, when they didn't know the truth and could play without realizing that darkness had already descended. He knew he didn't want them to see their parents that way. He'd have to tell them the truth soon. But for now--just right now--he wanted to let their blissful ignorance last.

Harry saw Barium and leaped up. "Can we get some candy at the store?"

"Might as well," Barium said.

The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed over fifty million people worldwide. Philadelphia was hit especially swiftly and hard, when a few cases in the Navy Yard spread wildly following a huge city parade to raise money for the war. People were struck down suddenly, in the midst of their day, and soon were gasping for breath. The quick destruction of their lungs caused the tell-tale cyanosis, a purplish-blue color spreading over their body from lack of oxygen from lungs swiftly destroyed by the virus. Available hospital beds filled in a few days, and the city utilized any building with space for cots and the volunteer workers that could be found to take the possibly fatal jobs. All public events were forbidden. Churches, schools, and factories were closed. And when the hundreds of bodies stacked up faster than they could be buried, Catholic seminaries sent their theology students to dig mass graves for the dead.

It was a time of wretched horror, heartbreak, and unimaginable courage. T. Neill Anderson's Horrors of History: People of the Plague: Philadelphia Flu Epidemic 1918 (Charlesbridge, 2015) brings the dramatic story of this modern plague home to young adult readers, centering around three groups of young people--Barium and his relatives, the Milani family, Leo, Tim, and Thomas, seminary students, and Sister Katharine and the other young nurses and medical student Dr. Lawrence, who worked in the death wards, giving what comfort they could to the dying. Anderson uses well-developed characters, both real and imagined--including Dr. Wilmer Krusen, head of public health for the city, who struggled to find ways that the healthy could be protected, the sick could be cared for, and the dead could be buried through the two months that the disease raged.

Anderson tells it like it was, with actual black and white period photos and imagined but authentic dialog and grim and frightful episodes that cannot help but make the scene deeply felt by young adult readers who have the recent Ebola epidemic fresh on their minds. Not all of his characters survive the epidemic. Little Harry Milani sickens before he finishes the Tootsie Roll Barium bought him; seminarian Leo falls sick on the train after the first day of gravedigging, and the student Dr. Lawrence collapses in the ward as he records his patients. Dr. Krusen survived, and Harriet, Barium, Tim and Thomas, and Sister Katharine lived on, eyewitnesses to one of history's worst plagues.

Thanks to the progress of medicine, the strain of virus which led to this disease has been recovered from victims buried in 1918 in Arctic permafrost, and its DNA has revealed that it was a deadly mutation of the still common bird flu. Public health agencies are stronger now and governments have more experience with disasters, but with most of the survivors of this disease now gone, much can be learned from a realistic historical fiction portrayal of an unpredictable and deadly epidemic. The details of the 1918 flu can and should be disturbing, but for those hardy readers who value the truth, this gripping account has much to teach young adult readers in the way of human compassion, courage and devotion to duty.

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