Safe in her home in Portland, Oregon, Cleo Berry can only imagine the terror of the Spanish Influenza that is ravishing the East Coast. When her guardians go away on travel and Cleo is stuck boarding at school, things begin to hit much close to home. The flu that felt so very far away becomes a real threat as cases begin popping up in the Pacific Northwest. Along with churches, theaters, and other public venues, Cleo’s school is shut down. Cleo foolishly decides to ride out the pandemic in the comforts of her own home, but when she sees an ad for Red Cross volunteers, she can’t ignore the call to action. Although at first out of her element, Cleo begins to identify with the patients she is caring for, and she slowly begins to fall for Edmund, a handsome medical student and war vet. Cleo is drawn to helping people, but at what personal risk?
Based on the most devastating real-life pandemic ever recorded, A Death-Struck Year is extremely well researched and vividly depicted. I was captivated by Cleo’s story as she dives headfirst into a world she never thought would exist. She’s all at once strong and unwavering in her devotion to the Red Cross, yet still naïve and cautious in her commitment. As a girl who had been spending time questioning her place in the world and what she might do after graduation to make her mark, answering the ad for volunteers led her straight to a path that has her making a world of difference in the lives of those in her community.
Amidst the sheer terror and pandemonium that is rife in the novel is a sweet story of friendship. Cleo finds a like-minded and tender soul in Kate, who comes from a long line of nurses. Kate and Cleo hit it off immediately and fall into the comfortable routine of searching neighborhoods for the ill and tending to patients in the sick ward. As the two girls forge a new friendship, Cleo learns that Kate never wanted to follow in her family’s footsteps and become a nurse. She is set to leave on scholarship for a prestigious music school as soon as things settle down in Portland. My heart broke for the things that Kate wanted and might never find in her life, and I was drawn to this friendship forged from tragedy.
Another intriguing storyline comes in the form of a budding romance between Cleo and handsome medical student Edmund. Through the chaos and death that surrounds them, Cleo and Edmund forge a tenuous bond, constantly tested by the rigors of caring for the deathly ill. I loved seeing their relationship blossom, confined by both the conventions of the time period as well as their circumstances.
It is difficult to even begin to imagine the terror that the people of this time period must have felt in seeing their loved ones and neighbors fall ill to a pandemic never before seen. The Spanish Influenza did not discriminate in choosing its victims, with both the very young and the very old falling prey to the sickness. The novel does an excellent job of capturing the very grim details of caring for the ill, as well as the general panic and dread of the people. The book is riveting and fast-paced, giving the reader an appreciation for the comforts of modern medicine.
I highly recommend A Death-Struck Year for anyone looking for a well-paced drama. It is an intriguing story set in a well-researched and vivid historical setting.