Reviewed by Julie, Children's lit enthusiast and pop culture geek
I really love historical fiction coming-of-age stories, and A DEATH-STRUCK YEAR touches on a darkly fascinating moment in US (and world) history: the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918. To a contemporary reader, the flu is a sickness that is unpleasant, but might involve a couple of sick days on the couch before getting back to normal life. The Spanish Influenza, however, was responsible for the deaths of between 50-100 million people in a two-year period. A huge number of these victims were young and previously healthy, which made this disease even more threatening and unpredictable.
Makiia Lucier's A DEATH-STRUCK YEAR examines the courage it takes to be in the throes of unpredictable danger. At the beginning of the novel, Cleo, a seventeen-year-old student, is unaware of her strengths and unsure of what the future holds for her. When influenza appears in Portland, Oregon, Cleo decides to protect herself from the illness by remaining at home instead of her quarantined boarding school. However, a newspaper ad seeking Red Cross nurses unexpectedly inspires her to help the sick and risk her own life in the process. Throughout the novel, Cleo cares for patients, bonds with her fellow nurses, and strikes up a relationship with a young doctor. I loved accompanying Cleo through her journey as she learns that, while her future may be undefined, her strength knows no bounds.
I also liked how A DEATH-STRUCK YEAR painted a vivid portrait of World War I-era America during the pandemic. Small details--including the ever-present white masks meant to protect from the disease--inform readers about what it was like to live during this time. Minor characters and plot threads are also very telling: for instance, one of Cleo's neighbors abandons his family for fear of contracting the flu. This example provides a stark contrast to the heroic selflessness of the Red Cross nurses who risked illness (and worse) in order to help the sick. For a riveting story based on a true national disaster, be sure to pick up A DEATH-STRUCK YEAR.
Market: YA fiction
Violence: A character reflects on wartime violence
Sensuality: Chaste kissing. Short discussions about contraception. (These are not central to the plot, but rather give historical context about WWI-era medicine. Margaret Sanger, the birth control advocate and nurse, and her ideas are a topic of discussion among Cleo and the nurses.)
Adult Themes: Sickness, death, loss/grief