Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier

It can be a real challenge to talk about a book like A Death-Struck Year. Why? Because if you love a book like this, there's bound to be some nutbar who mistakes you for some kind of disease-loving ghoul. While if you hate it, there'll be someone who might accuse you of being insensitive to things that happened in the past. Your damned if you do, damned if you don't.

I'll put it out there right now: I feel the same way about plagues that many people do about zombies. I find them freaking scary. And the thing is--and I mean this as nicely as possible--you're far more likely to be facing a disease then a half rotting corpse who wants your brains in this world of ours. (That's not to discredit genres like fantasy, which I actually write, but...) Fantasy, horror, etc. don't scare me. But a book like this? I'm still thinking about it and reeling from it almost a week after reading it. That's not easy when I'm going through a phase where I'm reading a lot.
(Summary from GoodReads)
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.
I think that A Death Struck Year was totally spot on. It's clear that Makiia Lucier has done her research and that she put a lot of effort into getting the details of the time period and the fear that people were experiencing then right. The idea that this book would have taken place before my grandparents were born is really something. Yet despite this, the writing style stayed contemporary enough that I was able to zip through the book with ease. This is something people will either love or hate, but personally it worked for me. We're in first person here and making Cleo's thoughts clear was important, especially with all the chaos surrounding her. 

Cleo was a well developed character who had moments when I wanted to hug her and moments when I wanted to hit her. She straddled the gap between teenage girl and young woman well, presenting a front that I felt was believable for the time and relatable for modern readers. I've seen a few complaining that the novel starts slow. I feel that it had to. If we had been tossed directly into the Flu from page one we would not be able to appreciate the full depth of Cleo's growth in the novel or just how deeply the Flu impacts her life. 

I liked the reason that Makiia gave for Cleo's decision to join the Red Cross as a volunteer. I also think it's interesting--and that it speaks to her motivation's credability--that there are people torn over whether her choice made sense. But really think of it... Would you be willing to risk your own life to save others? Could you really be sure if the answer was yes or no? Or about what might change that answer? Cleo's motive was actually stronger than what I would expect in real life, yet it met with the fictional need for a choice to 'make sense' in a way that (I feel) fabulously enriched her character. 

The connection between friendship and the spread of the Flu is something that is touched on in A Death-Struck Year and I think it is handled well. It would have been all too easy to have Cleo remain untouched by the effects of what is happening, to be in the midst of this storm without ever being effected by it, but thankfully (in relation to *fiction*) Makiaa Lucier had the courage to go beyond that. There is loss in this novel, and there was one part in particular that did produce tears from me. That's no small feat. I think that this added to the realness of the story and drove the point home about just how bad the whole situation could be--and that Cleo was able to keep going despite this. Although I will say I noticed a similarity between this book and In The Shadow of Blackbirds that made me go, "Really?". It was just too much of a coincidence. 

The last thing I want to say is that I did enjoy the romance between Cleo and Edmund, and I was glad that it didn't get in the way. It could have gone all kinds of wrong in the midst of a story like this, but it was balanced in such a way that I never felt like it acted as some kind of magical balm that made what was going on around these characters somehow 'okay'. (That would have irritated me.) I also feel that in this story the open nature of the ending for the book and romance was appropriate. I think there was likely a split on those who felt Cleo and Edmund might continue any type of correspondence or connection after the Flu, and this ending allows for the reader to make up their own mind. This wouldn't work for me in every book, but here it was a satisfying solution. 
I totally loved A Death-Struck Year and would gladly recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction and / or those who are as fascinated / horrified with tragedies of the past as I am. I feel that Makiia Lucier did a fabulous job of bringing 1918 Portland to life, and in humanizing a time in history that must have been terrifying for those who lived it. This is a book where I knew what I wanted going in, and I had received it by the time I hit the home button on my Kindle. I cannot ask for more. 


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