Laura Spinney covers a tremendous amount of ground with her excellent book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World. It’s a timely read for 2020, of course. And Spinney talks about everything from how the flu started and traveled, to how it changed art, literature, and culture. All packed in under 350 pages.
Given its brevity, Pale Rider is not a deep dive on any one topic. It’s more broad and shallow, while still retaining considerable intriguing details. What I knew about the 1918 pandemic would fit into a teacup. And this is a firehose that spins you from Alaska to the World War I European theater to South Africa’s mines. Still, Spinney combines her narrative in a logical way that resisted any confusion.
She addresses the various types of medical care and science available in those times. Even given significant improvements, the parallels of then and now are striking. The challenges that health professionals faced a century ago encouraged improvement in the ensuing decades. For example, we have today’s public health and epidemiology professions because of the 1918 pandemic.
Spinney also explains how the 1918 experience changed later, smaller pandemics. And her analysis definitely gave me pause, while considering our current situation. Despite the 100 year change, many challenges remain the same—vaccines, social distancing, mask wearing—and whether to enforce.
A pandemic history can tilt towards the dull or the frightening. Spinney hit the perfect center sweet spot for me. She shares enough historical description, scientific information, and correlations to current day. But her instinct isn’t to scare the bejesus out of her readers. Thank goodness.
I loved how Spinney offered details about the flu’s impact on so many varied parts of the world. Her stories explained how the virus traveled. But they were also personal and culturally relevant to each area. She also talks about the physical effects that people carried for decades after, no matter what age they were when the 1918 flu hit.
I’ve wondered how today’s entertainment industry is going to approach the 2020 quarantine in their story lines. And Spinney addresses just this in one fascinating chapter. It made me want to re read some classics written in the 1920s and 1930s, just to see the reference to illness myself.
If you’re looking for an even-handed, worldwide history of a single pandemic that changed our approach to flu-like viruses, this is a valuable book.
Pair with Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical by Anthony Bourdain for an epidemic story from a slightly earlier time. Another option about early 20th century science and medicine is The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager.