Pale Rider–Reviewing the 1918 Influenza Pandemic


Pale Rider CoverSoon after it became clear CoVid-19 was going to become a pandemic I decided I would take the time to read up on the “Spanish Flu 1” pandemic of 1918. I’d had a bit of exposure to its history, as the church I was attending during college had served as a hospital during that era, but other than that I was in the dark. I needed to know more.

Why would I want to explore such a depressing era during a pandemic? Because through studying this past pandemic I could gain something I’d have difficulty finding anywhere else. Language. That is, the language by which I’d be able to frame my conversations on both this disease and the strategies being used to combat it.

And with language, I’d gain understanding. Not mastery, just understanding. And understanding is important, because it helps me grasp my own reactions to external stimuli. Such as, for example, a global pandemic.

My search for reading material led me to Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney. Despite having two working adults, two teenagers, and one toddler in the house I finished the book in three days. I could not put it down.

Spinney begins her work by exploring the history of influenza itself—how it is transmitted, and what it does to the human body. She also examines the idea of how an animal virus is able to “ooze” into the human population, and the most probable vector by which influenza is transmitted to humans. While in unskilled hands this portion of the book could leave readers wanting the author to “get to the story, already,” Spinney’s introduction is fascinating. It lays the groundwork for everything which follows. The opening section may, in fact, be likened to an introductory course through which students begin to interacted with the language needed to understand 2 the topic.

Parts two through six explore the pandemic itself—how it started, how it spread, why the disease was so successful propagating, the strategies used to combat it, and the aftermath. She never attempts to tell the “whole” story of the Pandemic, focusing instead on certain persons and locations for which information was available. New York City, for example, is treated with great care for a controversial decision the city made—they never closed schools. Philadelphia, on the other hand, which was devastated by the virus, is given only the most brief of glances 3.

In this section Spinney also explores the immediate societal impact the flu had on cultures. It is at this point, continuing through the final sections of her work, that Spinney is at her most profound. It was as if I was looking in a mirror which reflected our own day. Pale Rider was written in 2017, but reading the book left me wondering how Spinney had not traveled to the future to see what was unfolding in the wake of CoVid-19.

Take this quote, for example,

In a future flu pandemic, health authorities will introduce containment measures such as quarantine, school closures and prohibitions on mass gatherings. These will be for our collective benefit, so how do we ensure that everyone complies? How, too, do we persuade people to get vaccinated each year, given that herd immunity is the best protection we have against a flu pandemic? Experience has shown that people have a low tolerance for mandatory health measures, and that such measures are most effective when they are voluntary, when they respect and depend on individual choice, and when they avoid the use of police powers.
— Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney

As I read I kept taking quotes from the book and sharing them to social media, with the comment, “You Are Here.” And we are, indeed, there. In fact, Spinney’s work displays how the playbook being used to combat CoVid-19 has been in place for years, as scientists were certain another novel virus could wreak havoc on the global community.

Spinney finishes her book by exploring how the flu changed the way the world responds to a pandemic. It highlights the creation of the World Health Organization, and explores in more detail both of how flu is studied and why is is able to mutate with such ease. This was perhaps the most valuable section for me, as it gave me context for how scientists are able to trace back the DNA of the CoVid-19 4 virus toward it’s probable genesis. It’s fascinating material, and well worth reading.

As I wrote above, my desire for reading this book was to develop language around which I could wrap my conversations of the CoVid-19 pandemic. Pale Rider has more than met that goal. I you want to feel you are looking into a mirror, but also if you want to know why the mirror is shaped the way it is, I cannot recommend this book enough.

  1. A misnomer. There is a good chance the pandemic began in the United States. 
  2. There are those words again. 
  3. I’m from Philly, so this was disappointing from a “home town” standpoint but, I can’t knock the decision, the New York story was fascinating
  4. The actual virus is named “Sars-Cov-2.” In case you were wondering.