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?
It is no secret that I am a fan of historical fiction, especially in YA, (Code Name Verity, The Book Thief, Between Shades of Gray, etc.). So when I discovered that there was a book about the Spanish-influenza, I couldn’t get it in my hands fast enough. I had no idea what it was about. Who the main character was, and if I’d even be intrigued by the plot, but I picked it up anyways, and I am so glad I did.
Debut novelist, Makiia Lucier, takes you back into a dangerous time in the past. A time where millions of people were dying of the world’s largest epidemic, meaning, as you aboard the story with Cleo and the friends she makes along the way, your will as a reader is tested. At any moment, any of the characters can die. And this isn’t The Hunger Games, where lives are at stake by class and government corruption. No, this was a time where anyone could contract the flu. So was I catching my breath quite often throughout this novel? Absolutely.
While the beginning is a little slow at first, Cleo is eventually thrust from her normal life of being a seventeen year old high school student to becoming a key part of people’s livelihoods. When she joins the Red Cross, all she knows is that she wants to help people in need. What she doesn’t know is how much her life will change. She meets the most sick but compassionate strangers who eventually become friends and more, including a fellow volunteer, Kate, who teaches her about birth control and a young passionate medical student, Edmund Parrish, who teaches her love. For Cleo, this influenza is both a curse and a blessing.
What I found most haunting of all in this novel, is how much of it ringed true. In an author’s note, Lucier indicates that while there were doctors and nurses traveling around, saving as many people as they could, Cleo’s story isn’t unique. Many volunteers during the Spanish-influenza epidemic risked their own lives saving others, not knowing when they’d be the next ones lying in bed. While this is a scary reality, the characters in the novel echo the lives of real people who have risked their lives for complete strangers. Another blessing and curse of its own.
Overall, Lucier has written a novel of sacrifice and courage wrapped up in a bitter-sweet coming-of-age tale. A debut well-done, and a great escape for any hard-core contemporary fans, like myself. Although Cleo’s story is ever relatable now, this is a book that can be read for years to come.