Cleo Berry lives in Portland Oregon with her brother Jack and his French wife, Lucy. It is September, 1918, and the First World War continues to drag on. Jack and Cleo's parents were killed four months earlier when their carriage ran off the road into a ravine. Jack and Lucy were living in France but returned to Portland to care for Cleo.
The novel opens with Jack and Lucy planning a trip to San Francisco and then onward to Australia. It is mid-September and they have decided that Cleo will board at her school, St. Helen's Hall until Jack and Lucy's return on the third of November. At St. Helen's Hall, Cleo and her classmates, Margaret Kesey, Grace Skinner, Emily Tobias and Anna, have barely settled in when rumours of the Spanish influenza begin to circulate. They have heard that the influenza is raging in Boston and Philadelphia with many people sick. So many people have died in Philadelphia that they have run out of coffins and are burying people in mass graves.
Their worst fears are confirmed though, when Miss Abernathy announces that the school will be closed immediately. A train carrying soldiers arrived at Camp Lewis, from the east and most of those soldiers are sick with influenza. Miss Abernathy reveals that there are now 200 cases of flu in Portland.
Although Cleo receives a telegram from Jack telling her they will be in Portland as soon as arrangements can be made, Cleo decides that she will not wait for her brother to pick her up at the school where she will be under quarantine. Instead, she decides to sneak out of the school and go home.
At home, Cleo is alone, since their housekeeper, Mrs. Foster is away in Hood River. Cleo sees an ad in the local newspaper, the Oregonian, for nurses to help out and women to enlist with the Red Cross. Cleo thinks of her parents and how her mother died when help did not arrive on time and this motivates her to enlist to help with "unattended" cases of influenza, that is those people who take sick but have no one to care for them.
At the Portland Auditorium, which has been made into a temporary hospital, Cleo meets Hannah Flynn, a young nurse who is running the site and who has no qualms about sending Cleo out to canvass the nearby neighbourhoods for sick people.
On her first day, Cleo is sent to South Portland where she rescues a desperately ill mother and her two young children. When she arrives back at the Auditorium she encounters Lieutenant Edmund Parrish, a young man who fought overseas in France and was badly wounded. Edmund has recovered from his wounds and is now a medical student. There are no doctors left as most have gone overseas or are working in the military infirmaries. Cleo also meets seventeen year old Katherine (Kate) Bennett. Cleo is shocked to see how many people are desperately ill and how the influenza kills so quickly. She asks Hannah and Kate if they are afraid and it is Hannah who states, "...these people need help. If not me, then who?"
Edmund Parrish tells Cleo that she doesn't have to help, to place herself at risk. He warns her that the influenza is taking more young people than old and that there is no shame in leaving to keep herself safe. But Cleo does stay.
Jack phones Cleo to tell her that because Lucy is pregnant they have been advised to postpone their travel arrangements for several weeks. Lucy tells him that Mrs. Foster is due back soon and that she has enough money for food and other necessities.
As the medical crisis deepens, Cleo watches as neighbours sicken and die, the hospitals run short of morphine and undertakers of coffins. Although their relationship began with a misunderstanding, Cleo begins to warm to Edmund, whom she discovers is kind-hearted and deeply concerned about her living alone. When Mrs. Foster does not return, Cleo is left wondering how long it will be before she too becomes ill.
A Death-Struck Year is Makiia Lucier's debut novel. Lucier enjoys historical fiction and her love of this genre definitely shows in this finely crafted novel about the influenza pandemic of 1918. She wanted to write a coming of age novel set during the time of the Spanish Influenza and in that regard she has succeeded admirably. Although the subject matter is grim, A Death-Struck Year never overwhelms the reader with that era's bleak atmosphere. Instead, Lucier incorporates plenty of historical details into her story in a manner that will be interesting to young readers. She also manages to imbue her characters with a sense of hope, that eventually life will soon return to normal.
And of course, there is the budding romance between Cleo and Edmund that feels natural even though the world is falling apart between a terrible world war and an influenza pandemic. This relationship, delicate and slowing developing, seems realistic and adds a measure of hope - life goes on even in spite of terrible tragedy and difficult times. Lucier avoids having their budding romance overwhelm the story arc as both Cleo and Edmund have plenty of other difficulties to capture their attention.
Lucier gradually reveals her characters through their actions in the novel; Cleo is brave, quick-thinking, Jack is firm but gentle with his younger sister, while Edmund is intelligent and thoughtful towards Cleo. The author balances these noble characters with the darker side of human nature; those who steal from abandoned homes and shops, spouses who abandoned sick family and those unwilling to help others.
Lucier has done her research on her subject matter and it shows. There are plenty of facts about the 1918 influenza that will inform readers, from its gruesome symptoms and progression, the numbers of dying, to the effects the pandemic had on life in American cities. The author has included a short historical note on the 1918 pandemic as well as a short booklist.
A Death-Struck Year is an excellent historical fiction novel that I highly recommend. I would love to see a follow-up novel that tells Edmund and Cleo's story fifteen years into the future!
A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014