BOOK REVIEW: Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider re-examines 20th Century’s biggest tragedy

It’s become a standard bit of 20th Century trivia that as terrible as the First World War was, the 1918 Flu Pandemic coinciding with the armistice killed more than the conflict itself.

Now, an especially pedantic person might want to argue that WWI really was the beginning of the ‘Second Thirty Years War‘; they might treat as bookends both world wars—roping together all battlefield deaths, all civilian bombings, every atrocity and genocide, every preventable famine and epidemic. And put together as a single historical event, they would claim, all the misery springing from human malice between 1914 to 1945 led to up to 100 million untimely deaths in those three decades.

But, as British science journalist Laura Spinney relates in her latest book Pale Rider, the pandemic known in its time as the Spanish Flu (but definitely not originating in Spain) may have killed in three years about the same amount as we murdered each other during those 30, infecting one out of every three people on the earth while killing one-in-20 of the global population.

Within a tidy 295 pages, Spinney asks then attempts to answer the question, “How did we allow ourselves to forget a tragedy of such enormity?”

To a limited degree, local policies could worsen or protect a population, but it had to take place in the context the First World War spreading the disease in the first place: all advancements of modern technology devoted to moving Chinese laborers to another hemisphere for the war effort and/or shipping infected American troops from Kansas to France to conclude another continent’s war turned a regional epidemic into a global pandemic.

Even in its own time, the three waves of shockingly virulent influenza were too big and horrible for people to comprehend. I remember an American Experience PBS documentary from the 1990s interviewing a now elderly man who’d been a child in the fall of 1918. He described how he and his friends were climbing over towering stacks of wooden boxes like a play fort until his mother scolded them for disrespecting dead people in caskets that way. That was for a small town in the United States, and this was a disease that touched everyone on earth.

Spinney’s technique for handling the material is in itself remarkable as she fast-forwards and rewinds, switches in scale from micro to macro, delving into how viruses were first seen under electron microscopes, explaining what the letters and numbers like H1N1 signify in how the flu functions, then zooming out to the path of disease across continents and its effects on societies along the way.

It’s in the third chapter where she most impressively balances the scales of personal and global, providing a seemingly endless series of anecdotes of the Spanish Flu’s progression as it intersects with people’s lives from China to Brazil to Alaska, and you feel how it matters to each person. It’s the equivalent of the September 11 attacks or Challenger explosion or JFK assassination except it was a tragedy experienced instead of received electronically.

The root of influenza in Italian is exactly as it sounds, referencing the influence of unseen powers on human affairs. But Spinney manages to also show the reverse: how humans influenced the spread and rapaciousness of the disease.

Most poetically and intriguingly, Spinney discusses the idea that by putting this 1917 version of influenza into the cauldron of hell that the trenches of the Western Front were, it naturally developed into the most virulent and apocalyptic version of itself possible. An officer disinclined to take a soldier off the front lines for a little fever would quickly change his mind when confronted with a soldier coughing up pints of pus and limbs turning black. So that may have been the strain that got back to the general population.

In the end, the only noticeable failing of Spinney’s book is that she mentions early on how the vast majority of people died outside of Europe and North America—more than 18 million people in India alone—yet she spends relatively little time in those places. She does spend some time outside of her buying audience’s world, and whatever relative dearth of coverage may be due to the limited sources Spinney has available to her as a non-polyglot, non-specialist. But if you’re going to mention how more people died in India than “The War to End All Wars”, there’s an expectation you’re going to find a way to get a bit more specific about the flu’s effects there than, by my count, some small mentions across six or seven pages.

As it is, Spinney has managed to research and write a concise but comprehensive work deserving to be part of your private library if you enjoy history or epidemiology whatsoever. It may even get you looking for more region-specific books the on pandemic to delve deeper into what she covered.

Unfortunately, it may also cause you break out into a cold sweat when you remember Republicans are looking to cut $1.2 billion from the Center for Disease Control budget next fiscal year.

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