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Monday, March 10, 2014

A Death-Struck Year: YA Historical Fiction Done Right

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Although a vicious strain of Spanish Influenza has swept from Europe to the U.S., killing thousands all over the world, Cleo Berry feels safe.  After all, the 17-year-old lives in Portland, Oregon, far from any reported cases of the disease.  While Cleo's brother and his wife—her guardians—are away on an anniversary trip, she's boarding in the student dormitories at her private high school.  She misses her large, quiet house, where she doesn't have to deal with a bunch of loud girls sharing her space, clogging up the communal sinks, and "borrowing" her things.  Cleo's not sure how she's supposed to bear such indignities for six whole weeks.

Then a group of soldiers at Washington State's Camp Lewis falls ill.  It's Influenza, way too close to home.  As a precautionary measure, the Portland Department of Health prohibits public gatherings and closes all schools.  With her brother still gone and the family's housekeeper away, there's no one to watch over Cleo.  She goes home, anyway.  On her own in a city that's reeling from its first cases of the deadly flu, Cleo's not sure what to do with herself.  

When Cleo sees an advertisement begging for volunteers to help the Red Cross nurses treat flu patients, she feels drawn to the cause.  Knowing her brother would never approve of her taking such risks, she sends word that all is well, there's no need for him to return early from his trip.  It's a lie.  The housekeeper hasn't returned to look after her and Cleo's spending so much time at the hospital she's forgetting to sleep, eat, and look after her own health.  How long will it be before she's struck down by the disease?  Is helping strangers really worth so great a risk?  What will Cleo, all alone in a dying city, do if she's the one who needs life-saving aid?  As more and more people perish from the flu, Cleo must decide what's most important:—aiding those who are already dying or saving herself.  

A Death-Struck Year, a debut novel by Makiia Lucier, paints a vivid and harrowing picture of what it must have been like to live through the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic.  Through Cleo's eyes, the reader sees—and feels—the panic, the fear, and the horror caused by this deadly natural disaster (according to Wikipedia, the 1918 flu outbreak infected about 500 million people worldwide, killing 50-100 million of them).  Despite its bleak subject matter (and Lucier gives plenty of grisly details), this is a warm novel that offers hope even in the grimmest of circumstances.  With tight prose, sympathetic characters, and an evocative setting, it's historical fiction done right—a rarity in the world of YA lit.  Fans of the genre, teens and adults alike, should not miss this absorbing novel.   

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  

for language (no F-bombs), blood/gore, and vague references to sex (STD's, birth control, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of A Death-Struck Year from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Thank you!


  1. This one sounds like a good one for a book club description.

  2. An A, huh? High praise indeed! On the list!

  3. This sounds like an interesting tale. I do like books that involve epidemics.

  4. I am partial to historical fiction, but I really thought this was a good one. Kept your interest, vivid characters, all the good things. Great review!

  5. This book sounds good! I love the idea of historical fiction done well - so much of it isn't!

    Also. . . loooooove the "My Kids Recommend" section! Super cute!


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