BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Spanish Flu Epidemic And Its Influence on History: Stories from the 1918-1920 global flu pandemic’


Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: The Spanish Flu Epidemic And Its Influence on History: Stories from the 1918-1920 global flu pandemic

Author: Jaime Breitnauer

Total Number of Printed Pages: 136

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 6


When writing in the volume’s Author’s preface, the author states that what follows is ‘A creative re-telling of the experiences of real people, giving an authentic face to the many tragedies that unfolded’. While an admirable concept, the end result may not be as the author intended.

Within the book itself, the previously mentioned Authors Preface, follows the Contents page and is in turn followed by a section titled Prologue: the month before war. Within this the author attempts to detail the political situation which led to the advent of World War 1, and the appearance of what subsequently became known as The Spanish Flu’. She does largely through the use of the Stream of Consciousness narrative technique (a method used more commonly used in works of fiction). This technique takes the reader into the mind of a specific individual and attempts to explain their actions by means of an imagined narrative of their thoughts. The individual chosen in this instance is Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian anarcho-nationalist who’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (of which Serbia was then a region) ultimately started World War I, the reader being privy to that individual’s thoughts immediately prior to the assassination. That what is related is fictional is not mentioned.   The 11 Chapters and Epilogue which form the bulk of the volume now follow. These are divided into four sections (termed Parts) and cover the origins, effects and decline of the Spanish Influenza pandemic from 1914 to 1920. Within each Part, individual Chapters cover specific aspects of the disease and its effects on local populations, regions and economies. Each Chapter follows a similar format and starts with a ‘Retelling of the experiences of real people’ (as indicated by the author in her Author’s preface). Again the Stream of Consciousness technique is used for the purpose. Where necessary,(and to fit the prevailing narrative), additional and similar Stream of Consciousness-embroidered ‘Tales’ may also appear within the individual Chapter. These ‘Retellings’ are intertwined with detailed  (and presumably ‘true’ and ‘accurate’; in many instances there is no way to know) accounts of what is known about the origins of the disease within the specific geographical specific area, the medical and political individuals involved and the preventative measures (or the lack of) taken in response to its onset. Where additional information is required, End-note–type citations are used. These are Chapter-specific and numeric in sequence, with the relevant citations appearing in a dedicated Notes section placed towards the back of the book. Unlike its companions, Part 4 (Secrets in the Snow: What Have we Learned in 100 years) and its subsections (Chapter 11 Peace In the Time of Influenza…) and the volume’s Epilogue (Northern Exposure…) deal with the post-pandemic world and subsequent scientific research into the causes of the original outbreak, the chances of a recurrence, and the medical and social options available should the disease reappear. A section titled About the Author follows the Epilogue. Its’ title is self-explanatory, and is in turn followed by the books’ Notes section, this being the repository for the previously-mentioned End-note-type Citations which appear throughout the volume.  A seven-page-long Bibliography follows.  This section lists the Books, Periodicals/ Articles and Websites used in the volume’s preparation. The Volume’s Index now appears. It is its final section. The book contains 16 pages of Images. These are monochrome in format, and cover a variety of subjects from viruses to advertisements. While they are informatively captioned, it was noted that several carried no supporting citations. The existence of the images is not mentioned in either Index or on the Contents page. The volume contains no Maps.

As previously-noted, the author states that what she has written is ‘A creative re-telling of the experiences of real people, giving an authentic face to the many tragedies that unfolded’. In support of that statement this reviewer expected to find such tales accompanied by authenticating citations and that the volume itself would be awash with the associated End-note type numbers. Such was not the case. Who (for example) were Messers. Clark, Da Cunha, or Lewis (page 19)? Did they actually even exist? Certainly reference is made to the ‘…Diaries of military chaplain Ed Clark’ but without any authenticating citations, how can a reader know if these documents, or even the individuals so-named are anything but mythical? The author’s use of the term ‘creative’ in her statement only serves to add to the possibility, such a term traditionally implying an ‘active’ imagination and ‘inventiveness’ on the part of whichever author uses it. The combination of ‘creative’ and lack of citations gave this reviewer no confidence in the authenticity of the narrative. The use of the Stream of Consciousness ‘imagined dialogue’ writing form further compounds the problem, as that writing-style has no verifiable basis of fact. Its use in a volume purporting to be a Serious Historical Record is immediately suspect, diluting and cheapening the narrative and its possible historical value. Statistics, where given, are equally unsupported. The statement (for example, and on page 44) that ‘In Uppsala…a record 5,000 cases were recorded in just one month…’ is meaningless in the absence of supporting, verifying and (most importantly) AUTHENTICATING documentation. In addition, the Index is best described as being ‘Patchy’; with random checking finding numerous ommissions; those of NHS (p.viii) and Pioneer Health Services (page 36) being but two of many. This reviewer was also surprised to find that countries such as New Zealand, Japan and Australia were missing from the Index; this despite having entire sections written about them. The reasons for such significant omissions are unknown.

Although this volume is well-written and intentioned, the lack of supporting citations, use of the Stream of Consciousness writing style, and poor indexing has resulted in a book best–described as ‘imagined’ history. It does not conform to historical-writing ‘best practice’ and as a result cannot and should not, be considered to be a true and accurate record. It might just as well be a novel.

Although, due to the previously-noted ‘failings’ it cannot be considered to be an ‘Authoritative Source’ this volume may be of interest to Sociologists and Historians of various persuasions. Readers with an interest in unusual ‘Medical’ events might also find it of interest, as might those with an interest in their national histories and the impact that the ‘Flu had on their countries. The information it contains however, should be taken with considerable caution.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this book a 6.

It could have been so much better.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Spanish Flu Epidemic And Its Influence on History: Stories from the 1918-1920 global flu pandemic’