A Death-Struck Year

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
A Death-Struck Year Book Poster Image
Historic flu epidemic seen through eyes of strong teen girl.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids will learn a lot about the impact of the Spanish flu epidemic at the end of World War I. The historical note at the end contains more information and details about the Spanish flu, including sobering fatality counts, and there's a brief further reading list for kids who want to know more about the epidemic and the time period. They'll also learn about daily life at that time, as well as some history and geography of the Pacific Northwest, especially Portland. They'll learn a few Latin phrases and a bit about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. There are brief references to family-planning pioneer Margaret Sanger and mentions of several methods of birth control still common today, along with a couple that aren't, but no explanation or details about these methods are given.

Positive Messages

The book's takeaway, that life goes on even after tragedy strikes, even if you don't feel ready for it to go on, is positive but not especially uplifting. Cleo, the 17-year-old heroine, realizes that one day she'll be ready to resume a normal life -- just not today. The message is presented in an appropriately careworn tone for a survivor of an epidemic that took more lives than World War I did. Adults can find hope in the knowledge that Cleo has the rest of her life ahead of her, but younger readers may be left with more of her "what's-the-point?" feelings than with real optimism.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Cleo, 17, is an outstanding model for keeping calm and working tirelessly in times of crisis, shouldering enormous responsibility, and demonstrating kindness to those in need. Love interest Edmund demonstrates the same characteristics as well as tremendous patience, both with Cleo and with an overwhelming task. Cleo's adult brother, Jack, and his wife are away on vacation for most of the story, but they demonstrate strong family bonds and genuine love and concern for each other. Hannah, the chief nurse at the emergency hospital where Cleo works, labors heroically for the sick while patiently guiding Cleo into adulthood during horrific times. Best-friend Kate models loyalty to friends and family and a cheery willingness to pitch in wherever she's needed.


Blood's mentioned several times as a symptom of the flu, but it's not described in detail. Other flu symptoms mentioned or described briefly a few times include vomit and cyanosis (when the skin turns blue and darkens to black for lack of oxygen). Cleo reads and hears stories that mention mass graves in the hard-hit eastern United States and that tell of people who commit suicide when they fall ill. Cleo witnesses death and illness up-close, but the focus is on the emotional impact, with little to no gore in the narrative.


Three kisses are mentioned but not described: one on the hand, one on the lips, and one somewhere unspecified. In conversation with her best friend, Cleo expresses curiosity about birth control, and the friend later gives her a pamphlet about it. Several methods of birth control are mentioned but not explained, including condoms, sponges, douches, pills, and pessaries.


"Hell" is used three times.


Kodak, Vicks VapoRub, and Lucky Strike each are mentioned once. Packard, Tin Lizzie, and Juicy Fruit are mentioned a couple of times each.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Cleo's adult brother, Jack, who's 16 years older than Cleo, is depicted drinking whiskey once. He offers some to 17-year-old Cleo, who declines. The fact that he drinks whiskey is mentioned an additional time or two in passing. It's mentioned that Red Cross volunteers dispense Lucky Strike cigarettes along with other items such as gum and sandwiches. No characters are depicted smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that in A Death-Struck Year, 17-year-old Cleo bears intimate witness to illness and death as the Spanish flu epidemic strikes Portland, Ore., in the last months of World War I. There's no violence and very mild gore: Blood and vomit are mentioned or described very briefly several times as symptoms. Although the book's filled with terrific role models and an overall positive message, the death of an important character and the world-weary tone at the end don't leave the reader on a high note.

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What's the story?

A DEATH-STRUCK YEAR, by Makiia Lucier, chronicles events of late 1918, when the Spanish flu epidemic hit Portland, Ore. Quarantined at school as the flu spreads, 17-year-old Cleo Berry escapes to make her way home, only to find the house empty. Travel restrictions throughout the Pacific Northwest mean she won't be reunited with her family any time soon, so Cleo decides to make herself useful and volunteers for the Red Cross at an emergency hospital. There she witnesses firsthand the epidemic's devastating toll on families and the community. She can't sit idly by when so many people need help, but how long will it be before she herself succumbs?

Is it any good?

In A Death-Struck Year, first-time author Makiia Lucier creates a strong, believable, and compelling heroine in 17-year-old Cleo Berry. Kids will easily relate to Cleo, who doesn't know what she wants to do with her life and who doesn't think she's anything special; they'll be inspired by her example, not only to help those in need but also to discover that they're capable of more than they think.

The book ends on a rather morose note, which is arguably appropriate given that the subject's an epidemic that decimates whole cities. But, throughout the book, Cleo's narrative voice is fairly light in tone and depth, which makes the bittersweet ending somewhat jarring in comparison. Although kids might be left in a sober mood, they'll have soaked up a lot of history from this absorbing tale, as seen through the eyes of a great girl role model. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about flu vaccines.  Do any of your family members get an annual flu vaccination? Why, or why not?

  • Why are books about diseases and epidemics popular? What can we learn from them? Have you read another books wherein illness is part of the drama? How does this one compare? 

  • If you'd been alive in 1918, would you have volunteered like Cleo did? Have you ever volunteered your services to the community?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love historical fiction and coming-of-age stories

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