NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, September 24th, 2017

Book Review: Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider re-examines the biggest tragedy of the 1900s

Laura Spinney's Pale RiderIt’s become a stan­dard bit of twen­ti­eth 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 result­ed in up to one hun­dred mil­lion deaths dur­ing 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 as many peo­ple in three years as humankind did dur­ing thir­ty years of war, infect­ing one out of every three peo­ple on the earth while killing one in twen­ty 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?”

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 11th attacks, Chal­lenger explo­sion or JFK’s 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 intrigu­ing­ly, Spin­ney explores 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. 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 eigh­teen mil­lion peo­ple in India alone — yet she devotes rel­a­tive­ly few pages to describ­ing the impact the dis­ease had on 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.

Nev­er­the­less, 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 bud­get of the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion next fis­cal year.

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