Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Death-Struck Year book review

A Death-Struck Year

A Death-Struck Year

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 and interesting.

My Review:  5/10 *Spoiler alert!*

Solid, middle of the line effort. I really liked the first few chapters, especially the bantering in Latin. I enjoyed the setup of scenery and characters. For a book that only covered about a month in total and spent about 20-40 pages on any particular day, it moved fast enough. It was engaging, kept my interest, and was easy to finish.

Some major things got in the way for me though:

*The romance. I love a good love story. I have never said this before and I hope to never say it again, but when Edmund was introduced and Cleo reacted, I could feel my eyes rolling and my lips mumbling "oh come on!" of their own accord. It would have gone down better if one of three things happened. 1. Edmund died. 2. In the panic and desperation of the epidemic/war, they had a quickie wedding or one night stand and had to work through the muck of the aftermath. 3. The book followed up with them both years down the road and showed that it amounted to nothing, that the romance that flared between them was sparked by the circumstances. It was special, but incapsulated in that time, never to be fanned to life again.

As it was, none of those things happened. Edmund was a perfect gentleman with no faults and everything going for him. He was immediately taken with her and promptly took up the role of solicitous fiance, making arrangements on her behalf and putting her best interests ahead of his own. The humor about the birth control pamphlet (fascinaing!) had me chuckling to myself, but nothing even came of that, despite being built up so much.

*Cleo herself. It was interesting to read about the spanish flu through the eyes of a 17 year old orphan of priviledge (strange indeed). But then Cleo morphed into a superhero, saving men, women, and children, scaring away burglers with a withering stare and idle threat, digging graves, and rescuing the nearly departed from the mortuary. Cleo's only faults, lying to her family and being reckless with her own health/safety, were not faults so much as "the indirect boast" (Jane Austen) because they were done for the benefit of others. I couldn't relate to her and she got on my nerves. Even when she made stupid, rash decisions that likely would have had serious consequences in real life, everything worked out.

*The death toll. While there were occasionally deaths, Cleo saved many more lives than were taken. Of her family and the primary characters, only one died. Doing the math from the historical notes, it seemed that only 1 in 15 died of the spanish flu (at least in Portland... really a 7% mortality rate? That can't be right... ) so I guess the lack of immediate characters succumbing wasn't inaccurate. But still, no one personally connected with her went down, with the exception of Margaret (we only meet her briefly in the beginning) and Kate (whom Cleo only knew for a few weeks and didn't even start to learn anything personal about her until just a few days before she died). Even the patients that were brought in- those who died got a passing line and those who slowly regained health were checked up on throughout the whole book. With the focus on life over death, it gave the impression that the spanish flu actually wasn't that bad. Which brought me to...

*The point. What was the point of the story? It was not a death-struck year, but a flu-ridden month. It seemed to me that Cleo was altered more by her personal tragedy as a child than by the events of either the war or the spanish flu.

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