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The Plague Years

Back in 1975, when I was living and working in Washington D.C., I picked up a book just because it sounded interesting, and because my imagination was captured by the title – The Plague of the Spanish Lady. There was something vaguely sinister about the cover of Richard Collier’s book, which depicted eight people varying in gender, age, and occupation, with the lower half of their faces covered by white masks.

As a freshly minted college graduate, I considered myself well-versed in history, but I was stunned by what I read. How could I have never heard that an epidemic of influenza – the so-called Spanish flu – killed more than 20 million people worldwide, including more than half a million Americans, in the living memories of several people in my extended family? (As we’ve all heard much more recently, some of those estimates have been revised to as high as 50 million, including 850,000 Americans.)

By the time I read that book there seemed to be, as others have observed, a mid-century collective amnesia about a massive tragedy that had caused more deaths than the World War that was raging when it began. The name “Spanish flu,” by the way, gives Spain a bad rap; while warring nations suppressed news of the pandemic within their boundaries, neutral Spain was honest about it. In fact, the first outbreaks have been identified variously as occurring in Kansas – at a U.S. Army base – and France, at a British Army base. And it proved particularly deadly for young adults, making it all too reminiscent of another pandemic some of us have lived through since, AIDS.

So from the beginning of my writing Flower of Iowa, the Spanish flu was integrated into the plot, long before Lavinia suddenly expired from it in a convenient but historically plausible twist in Downton Abbey – let alone before our own era’s equivalent pandemic turned all of our lives upside down in early 2020. I could never have imagined, 45 years ago when I read Collier’s book, that the pandemic of 1918-19 would suddenly become a piece of history familiar to everyone.


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