October 03, 2019


Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918. By Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     A genuinely terrifying graphic novel whose topic seems to be a century old but actually stretches – as is explained at the end – to today, Fever Year is an important book, brilliantly conceived although imperfectly executed. Don Brown knows how to make significant but little-remembered past events dramatic and involving for younger readers, without sensationalizing them – his previous book, The Great American Dust Bowl, did so to excellent effect. But the past is largely a closed book for today’s young people, whose visual focus and future orientation – and preoccupation with electronics – make it very hard to explain the significance of an event that happened more than a century ago.

     Thus, Fever Year could have used a setup that Brown does not provide. He does explain that this was a time of war (not that World War I likely has much meaning for this book’s intended audience), but he does not open by explaining how different medical care was at the time from the way it is now. There was little understanding of disease transmission; there was little knowledge of microscopic disease-causing organisms; there were no antibiotics at all (not that they would have worked against the flu, which is a viral rather than bacterial disease); sanitation in healthcare was still an iffy proposition; etc. Some of these facts creep into the latter parts of Fever Year, and the war comes back again and again, not only because so many soldiers were stricken but also because doctors and nurses were in very limited supply because so many had been called to Europe to assist the war effort. But an overview of medical science and pseudo-science at the start of Fever Year would have helped set the dismal scene.

     However, if Brown can be faulted for how he sets up the story, or does not set it up, there is little to criticize in the way he actually tells it. It was a brilliant stroke to illustrate the entire book in tints of brown and gray, casting a pall of colorlessness and, by implication, a dull, drab sense of hopelessness over the story. And the matter-of-fact way in which Brown narrates the tale, interspersing the story with comments by officials of the time – most of them seriously wrongheaded – creates a cumulative sense of wrongness, of a time that is distinctly out of joint in ways that people can never quite grasp. Brown’s sensitivity to his young readership shows in the way his illustrations downplay just how awful victims looked in the throes of this devastating flu, but again and again, he discusses the toll of the disease and the vastly different populations that were struck by it, in no discernible pattern.

     The attempts to cope with the disease are handled gingerly, lest they seem silly – this is an area where a better initial setup would have helped, but Brown is at least careful not to mock people who bathed in mouthwash to try to kill germs, wore nightcaps to protect against the flu, used mustard plasters and mustard footbaths as anti-flu weapons, mingled coal smoke with sulfur or brown sugar, and sprayed water everywhere in the belief that dust transmitted the disease. Nothing worked; nothing could. The Spanish flu had to run its course, taking its major toll during 1918 but recurring for years afterwards, through 1922. And why “Spanish” flu? That is one of the interesting facts that Brown presents, and it is tied to war: although the disease struck people worldwide, neither side in the war wanted to publicize news of severe medical problems, fearing that the enemy could take advantage – but Spain did not take sides in World War I, so it reported on the disease honestly, leading people to believe, wrongly, that Spain must have been the source of the disease. Hence “Spanish flu.”

     There is so much in Fever Year that is so good that its shortcomings stand out all the more strongly. There are, for example, a number of errors in the writing that Brown or a good editor really should have caught. Page 12 has “the work of the the [sic] heavens.” Page 13 has “great swatches [sic] of the globe,” rather than “swathes.” Page 24 tells of sickbeds that “spilled out of the wards and on to [sic] porches,” rather than “onto.” Page 60 says “rest and calm insured [sic]” rather than “ensured.” And in writing a book about medicine, an author really should learn that “bacteria” is plural and “bacterium” singular. Brown writes of “the link between a bacteria and a particular illness” (page 55) and “the bacteria responsible” (pages 67 and 68). Despite the overall excellence of the story, errors of this sort undermine its quality.

     On the whole, though, Fever Year is a substantial accomplishment, and one that today’s young readers should find informative – and frightening. For even though we now have flu shots designed to protect us from the ravages of modern strains of the flu – a job the shots do moderately well but by no means perfectly – the exceptionally virulent Spanish flu, whose deadliness has never been fully explained, still lurks on the horizon. That is because the actual virus was re-created in the laboratory early this century – giving scientists the ability to study it and hopefully protect against an outbreak like the pandemic that killed a staggering 20 million to 50 million people a century ago. But if scientists now have a sample of this exceptionally virulent pathogen, how do we know that others who are far from well-meaning do not also have it? And how can we be sure that the Spanish flu will not one day re-emerge – or be deliberately released – in a world still largely unprepared for it and unable to fight it effectively?

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