Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on March 4th, 2014
Genres: historical, young adult
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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.A Spring 2014 Indies Introduce New Voices selection
Ughhh. I have a lot of conflicted feelings about this book. When I first started reading A Death-Struck Year it was just on a whim, and I ended up really enjoying the first few chapters. In the beginning, Cleo was an interesting character, and the fact that I know next to nothing about the Spanish Flu helped propel me along. But before long, everything started to unravel.
First and foremost, there was not a lot of emotion in this book. And for a story about a young woman who volunteers to help victims of a wide-spread, vicious disease, I expected more distress. Two factors lead to this lack of emotion: 1, the fact that Cleo’s closest loved ones and friends were far away and removed from the action and thus not in any danger, and 2, there was simply a lot of telling with very little showing to balance it.
We are constantly told how Cleo feels about the side characters. Instead of getting to know them as individuals, the characters are instead introduced with a small, forgettable anecdote and then we are left with next to nothing about the characters themselves. This was very true especially in the beginning of the story. First, we are introduced to Cleo’s brother Jack, and her sister-in-law Lucy. But they are gone within a matter of pages, and we’re then introduced to a new cast, the girls from Cleo’s school. Yet again, these characters are left in the dust and another rapid fire cast change comes in to replace them, this time in the form of nurses, soldiers, and volunteers that Cleo works with. The fact that we weren’t given very much time to get to know people definitely took away from the emotional factor when it came to their loss. If I can hardly remember someone, I’m not going to be particularly worried about whether or not they’ve caught the flu. Because there is no one who Cleo is particularly attached to, the danger and fear did not feel very immediate.
Also, I never felt very attached to Cleo, or like I knew her at all. At first, I basically adored her. She was introduced as having no ambitions, no real plans for the future, even though that future was practically knocking down her front door. I can totally relate to feeling lost in the world, with either no pull in any direction, or having too many interests and feeling like I’m being stretched thin. She felt no calling, no passion for anything in particular, and was reading a book on these inspiring women who had changed the world, looking for her own sort of answers. I loved that when it came time to rise to the occasion, Cleo stepped up and sort of found her place in the world. But I guess because that calling hadn’t been there from the start, and she wasn’t emotionally accessible, I never felt the why behind her volunteer work. She was a very cold character, and sadly, I don’t think the author intended it to be that way.
All this isn’t to say that A Death-Struck Year was a bad book. It had plenty of positive qualities. It will, of course, stick out to me in particular as being one of the rare historical fiction books that I’ve enjoyed reading. This novel was also incredibly well-researched. One of my complaints with many historical fiction novels is a strange lacking in a sense of place. But I felt totally submersed in Cleo’s world. Lucier wrote this mindfully, including small tidbits and details that really drove home the historical setting. Sadly, though, this just wasn’t the book for me. Historical fiction fans might love it, though.