I picked this up in late 2020, thinking it might be a good thing to know a bit more about pandemics, since we were in the middle of one.
It is constructed in an anecdotal way, drawing on many, many sources – and must’ve required daunting amounts of trawling through archives, local newspapers, medical records, death stats, etc to put together. Like the pandemic, the book darts about the world (in a slightly disjointed way). Like the pandemic, the book spends a lot of time in the USA, dealing with how the ‘Spanish Lady’ affected the States, spreading outwards from military training camps and from soldiers returning from WWI. It dodges about in time a bit too.
Unlike our current pandemic, whole communities were wiped out, in ways that remind one more of the English experience with the Black Death in the Middle Ages than our recent experience with Coronavirus. The value of quarantining was recognised as beneficial and life saving during the Black Death pandemic. It doesn’t seem to have been used much during the Spanish influenza outbreaks and, as we know, was applied at best patchily during our own recent battle with a deadly virus. However, masks were believed to be efficacious, and were popular.
You may be amazed (if you read this book, or pick up stats about the Spanish influenza from another source) how many people died. 500 million are estimated to have been infected, of whom 50 million died. That’s 1 in 10. It was an H1N1 virus. They’re still here. And mutating all the time.
It was a sobering read. But not, I have to say, a page turner, despite its fascinating and sometimes grisly stories of ordinary folk. It was a little too bitty to have much bite. For that reason I didn’t manage to finish it until our own pandemic had taken its foot off our throats.
I feel better informed for having read it. Although there are a number of other books on the subject, and it may pay you to shop around, sampling, if this is a subject you want to know more about.
And I daresay there will be some ‘compare and contrast’ works being written right now about our most recent version of a pandemic.