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Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Source: Publisher provided for review
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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.A Death-Struck Year is kind of a conundrum for me. While the historical setting and general premise were fascinating and a quick sell for me, the execution was a bit lacking. I immediately (and obviously) thought of In the Shadow of Blackbirds when I originally read the synopsis, but that comparison ultimately doesn't stretch farther than the time period and probably hurt my impression of A Death-Struck Year. While In the Shadow of Blackbirds was emotionally compelling, haunting, and heartbreaking, all I could feel from A Death-Struck Year was a general sense of sadness at the situation, but no lasting feelings for Cleo.
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.
In reading A Death-Struck Year, the amount of research Makiia Lucier did is clear. The details don't overwhelm or detract from the story, but they keep a distinct time and place. But, I think my main problem stems from the same thing that makes the historical detail work. The writing itself is clear and simple, and even though the narration is first-person, I never felt a connection to Cleo or a sense of her motivation. In the bio provided for the author, it says she studied journalism in college. Journalistic writing is different from creative writing; journalists focus on plain language and portraying facts without bias, whereas creative writing allows for inference of feelings. And though the writing is perfectly fine in general, I think the style of A Death-Struck Year is too plain, too straightforward for a story that should be highly emotional.
The tone of the novel also never feels urgent. With the flu killing people in such short spans of time and Cleo even witnessing several deaths, the threat of the flu never feels like a race against death. It never feels like Cleo is truly tempting fate by working in close proximity with so many of those who are ill. This is something that should be felt in every sentence, every scene, never knowing who could fall ill next and if they even have a chance of surviving to make it to the hospital.
All of that being said, I still generally enjoyed reading A Death-Struck Year. There's not necessarily an abundance of plot, but watching Portland head towards breakdown was entertaining and kept me turning pages. And even though I never felt a connection to Cleo, I really liked Edmund. Even without knowing his thoughts, he was a character that I could actually feel something for--even though the romance was a little unnecessary.
While A Death-Struck Year is written competently and researched excellently, it's the lack of a connection that makes it only an okay read. Even so, I certainly don't regret reading the novel and think there will be and are people who enjoy it.
About the author:
Makiia Lucier grew up on the Pacific island of Guam, not too far from the equator. She received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a master's in library studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she studied literature for children. She's had plenty of jobs, mostly in libraries, and currently resides in the small college town of Moscow, Idaho.