Monday, November 26, 2018
Nonfiction review: Very, Very, Very Dreadful
Well, Albert Marrin decided it was time that we learn something about the 1918 flu by writing Very, Very, Very Dreadful: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918, and in the process he also teaches us about other pandemics in world history and what set up the circumstances for the most dreadful of them all in 1918. He also warned us that it could happen again. In fact, scientists are certain that another pandemic will strike some time in the future. Will we survive it or not?
Back in early 1918 World War I was raging when American troops at Camp Riley started coming down with flu symptoms. The disease spread quickly but fortunately the symptoms were mild and most of the soldiers survived. When the number of new cases started to diminish, doctors thought the worst of the flu season was over, but they were wrong. The disease had just jumped from stage one to stage two. The mutated form was much, much, much deadlier. As it turns out "no war, no natural disaster, no famine has ever claimed as many lives. In 18 months, over 500 million people contracted the flu---one third of the world population at the time---and between 50-100 million people died" (Book blurb). The disease infected people from every corner of the globe, including Pacific islanders and those living in the Arctic region.
No one was safe from the disease, though some people were more susceptible to dying from it and oddly it is not who you might suspect. The normal influenza usually kills people with weak immune systems like children and the elderly. The 1918 version, sometimes called the Spanish Flu, actually was more likely to kill healthy young adults with strong immune systems. In fact, it was probably the strong immune response that did them in. For this reason, more soldiers died from influenza than from WWI all together.
By the summer of 1919, the second wave was over and the third wave began with the disease receding into a more normal flu pattern. Coincidentally by this time, the war was over and soldiers were no longer living in cramped spaces and unhealthy conditions associated with the war effort. Even though the disease killed around 5% of the world's population it stopped making the news, downplaying it's lethal implications. "Historian Alfred Crosby confirmed this. While glancing at the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature for the period from 1919 to 1921, he made a startling discovery: thirteen inches of column space were dedicated to baseball stories, but only eight inches to stories about influenza" (138). Textbooks often don't mention the epidemic at all or give it very little attention. It is as if society was so sick of the disease they just wanted to forget it ever happened.
Marrin addresses this societal forgetfulness in the last few chapters of the book where he discusses what science has discovered about the H1N1 virus since that time and makes some predictions of possible or potential epidemics to come. The scariest is the bird flu, which if it makes the jump from bird to human transmission to human to human transmission, could wipe out over 60% of the population. It doesn't take a very active imagination to figure out what would happen to societies if that were to happen...total chaos.
My husband and I listened to the audio version on a trip we took over the holiday weekend. We were both fascinated and horrified by what we learned. We both remarked how effective it is to receive historical information when it is delivered on a theme. So often history is taught in a chronological manner...often highlighting wars and the circumstances leading up to them while skipping over other societal events that were impacting millions of people. From this book we not only learned about the Spanish Flu pandemic, but about other pandemics throughout history. We learned some of the details of WWI and the deplorable conditions soldiers were forced to live in throughout. The author even touched on Women's rights, since suffragists were busy at work attempting to secure the right for women to vote during the same time period. I highly recommend this book for all history buffs and every high school or public library should have it in their collection. At my old school, I'd be getting this book into the hands of the Medical Careers teacher urging her to recommend that her students read it. We can no longer ignore the lessons we should have learned from the most dreadful disease know to humankind---The 1918 influenza pandemic.