One hundred years from now, what will people be reading about today’s Coronavirus pandemic? While the full dire impact of Covid-19 is still unfolding, such a long-range perspective on pandemics can inform and possibly comfort some of us. Such stories can tell us how people have survived and then forged onward. For this reason, today I look at Don Brown’s graphic history of the 1918 influenza epidemic, Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918 (2019). Readers tween on up will best appreciate this fine work, with its century-long perspective on that global tragedy.
Award-winning author/illustrator Brown deploys delicate watercolor paintings to illustrate this 100-page volume, organized as “A Tragedy in Three Acts.” Act One details the relevant events of January – July, 1918, while Act Two covers August – December, 1918 and Act Three focuses on 1919. As this chronology unfolds, readers learn the scope of that pandemic, which ultimately affected a third of the globe, killing about 650,000 people in the United States and 50 million world-wide. Brown uses color very effectively to convey these somber events: sepia tones dominate, with bright orange-red highlighting the most emotional scenes or dismaying facts and mistaken beliefs. Similarly, Brown’s visual composition dramatizes the narrative, with double page spreads conveying wide-scale and significant events, and close-ups on faces or people that dramatize individual accounts. At times, Brown wisely chooses wordless panels to portray the passage of time or someone’s mounting realization of the pandemic’s effects. Shifts in perspective on the same page similarly may convey changes in time or mood as well as movement to a different person’s viewpoint.
Readers will note similarities between people’s responses back then and today to the massive effects of a pandemic. Uncertainties about its origin and how to treat, slow, or stop the disease occurred both then and now. Like President Trump, some 1918 leaders ignorantly declared that the outbreak would last only two weeks! The 1918 flu also saw the outbreak of unreasonable fear or anger, along with the courage of first responders and volunteers in the news today. For instance, today some Chinese and other Asian-Americans are being heinously attacked just because Covid-19 began in China. In 1918, the flu was falsely labelled the “Spanish flu” only because Spain, neutral during World War I, announced its outbreak before nations-at-war were willing to reveal their own vulnerability. The 1918 flu most likely began, as Brown shows, in the United States, in Kansas pig farm country close to an Army base. Brown also briefly dips into how since 1918 our understanding of that flu’s real origin has changed over the years and finally been scientifically verified.
As an author, Brown zooms in and succinctly conveys poignant individual accounts. The exact number of afflicted thousands might be difficult to remember, but it is hard to forget these words of a graveside mourner, speaking about the flu: “It didn’t last too long . . . . It was a whole lifetime.” Brown’s sketching of facial features, abstractly rather than realistically detailed, captures emotions well, as does his brief outlining of body language. These visuals liven not only hospital and graveyard scenes but also episodes depicting the spread of the disease and mistaken as well as useful methods to halt its spread. Today’s readers will recognize the empty, shut-down streets and centers of 1918’s cities world-wide.
Readers will also learn interesting, sometimes surprising facts. For instance, as a native New Yorker, I did not know that most of its many “No Spitting” signs—still evident in the 1960s and 70s—began as 1918 flu warnings! Young readers may be surprised at the number of celebrities who survived the 1918 flu, including teen-aged cartoonist Walt Disney, an ambulance corps volunteer. Less entertainingly, some readers will be surprised to learn that African-American nurses were segregated in the Army, only fully employed there and elsewhere once the flu dangerously increased the need for nurses. Today’s news is filled with accounts of brave nurses and doctors of all backgrounds, imperiling themselves to treat flu victims.
Fever Year concludes with a short Epilogue, summing up its three Acts and extending the third with the flu “curtain calls” that appeared sporadically between 1920 and 1922. Source notes and a thorough, useful bibliography round off the volume. Satisfied readers here may want to look next at Brown’s award-winning graphic non-fiction work about Syrian refugees, The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees (2018). I myself am interested in looking at some of the prose-only historical fiction Brown has also written. His first prose novel, The Notorious Izzy Fink (2006), about a 13-year old immigrant in early 1900s New York, facing a possible docked ship cholera outbreak among other dangers and problems, sounds particularly intriguing.
Happy reading as you stay well!