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Publisher's Summary

In 1918, the Italian-Americans of New York, the Yupik of Alaska, and the Persians of Mashed had almost nothing in common except for a virus - one that triggered the worst pandemic of modern times and had a decisive effect on the history of the 20th century.

The Spanish flu of 1918-1920 was one of the greatest human disasters of all time. It infected a third of the people on Earth - from the poorest immigrants of New York City to the king of Spain, Franz Kafka, Mahatma Gandhi, and Woodrow Wilson. But despite a death toll of between 50 and 100 million people, it exists in our memory as an afterthought to World War I.

In this gripping narrative history, Laura Spinney traces the overlooked pandemic to reveal how the virus travelled across the globe, exposing mankind's vulnerability and putting our ingenuity to the test. As socially significant as both world wars, the Spanish flu dramatically disrupted - and often permanently altered - global politics, race relations, and family structures while spurring innovation in medicine, religion, and the arts. It was partly responsible, Spinney argues, for pushing India to independence, South Africa to apartheid, and Switzerland to the brink of civil war. It also created the true "lost generation". Drawing on the latest research in history, virology, epidemiology, psychology, and economics, Pale Rider masterfully recounts the little-known catastrophe that forever changed humanity.

©2017 Laura Spinney (P)2017 Hachette Audio

Critic Reviews

"Impressive.... Set against the devastating backdrop of global contagion, it is individual lives and deaths, discovered in letters, diaries, biographies and memoirs, that epitomize this rich account. Spinney invokes potent images.... Along with exemplary research, Spinney's narrative is packed with fascinating, quirky detail.... As the centenary of this monumental event approaches, other volumes on the pandemic will undoubtedly appear. Pale Rider sets the bar very high." ( Nature)
"A vividly recreated, grimly fascinating book.... Coolly, crisply, and with a consistently sharp eye for the telling anecdote...Spinney demonstrates how Spanish flu cast a long, dark shadow over the 20th century." ( The Daily Mail)

What members say

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Cynthia
  • Monrovia, California, United States
  • 02-12-18

A Predilection for Those in the Prime of Life

About 20 years ago, I watched a PBS show on the flu pandemic of 1918 that was probably PublicResourceOrg’s, “We Heard the Bells: The Influenza of 1918.” In 1998, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology wanted to obtain tissue samples of the virus. There was a group of people that went up to Alaska with lots of equipment and white hazmat suits to try to exhume bodies. They weren’t successful, but Dr. Johan Hultin, a retired San Francisco pathologist who flew up to Alaska on a commercial flight with his wife’s pruning shears and a cooler, was. He talked to locals; found graves that were in the permafrost; and obtained permission to remove lung tissue samples from people who probably died of influenza.

I was fascinated by Dr. Hultin’s innovation and chutzpah, which was a match to the cleverness and tenacity of the H1N1 virus that killed (conservatively) 50,000,000 people, and perhaps up to 100,000,000. When I learned that my grandmother’s uncle, a physician, had died of the flu, I was hooked on pandemics, viruses, and vaccines. Laura Spinney’s “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World” (2017) was an easy choice.

Ms. Spinney’s reseach is exhaustive, ranging from the probable beginnings of the flu before common era, to medieval Europe, and up to the twenty first century. The book talks about identifying viruses as opposed to bacteria as a cause; and debunking the ‘miasma’ or bad air transmission theories. The discussion of the geographic origin of the flu eliminated Spain as the source - even if it’s also known as ‘The Spanish Flu’.

There are discussions about decimation of towns, cities, countries and even entire armies. Spinney doesn’t come to the conclusion that the flu determined the victors of World War I, but she convincingly argues that because Woodrow Wilson was sick with the flu, he was unable to effectively negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. Punitive terms against Germany ended up causing World War II. The flu changed the world in ways great and small.

The book was finished before the flu pandemic of 2017-2018. That is raging as I write this review. As Bloomberg Business reports, “Flu is Causing 1 in 10 American Deaths and Climbing. Along with the pneumonia it spawns, this year’s epidemic may be killing 4,000 people every week.” Michelle Cortez, February 9, 2018. There’s a lot about vaccines, how they were discovered, and why they work. Anyone looking for support for an anti-vaccine theory isn’t going to find it in “Pale Rider”.

“Pale Rider” is a much more in depth look at the flu than John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History” (2004), which I read about the time it came out. Barry’s book was an appetizer to Spinney’s full course.

I was not wild about the way “Pale Rider” was organized. It seemed to meander, both geographically and temporally. In a text version of the book, where it’s easy enough to skip back a few pages to check context, that’s not a problem. On Audible - well, that doesn’t work so well. Also, there weren’t any footnotes or endnotes with source materials. I haven’t read this author before, but it’s clear from the text that it was carefully researched. Those can be tedious to read, but a .pdf accompanying the Audible would have worked.

The title of the review is a quote from the book.

[If this review helped, please press YES. Thank you.]

13 of 16 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Interesting story, but terrible narrator

The narrator couldn’t seem to be able to make up his mind as to whether he was British or American! Seemingly randomly, he would switch between broad American pronunciation and the clipped British way of speaking. Over the many hours it took to get through this book this became incredibly irritating. Makes you wonder who directs these productions! Too bad.

8 of 11 people found this review helpful

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really well researched book

I really enjoyed this book. it gives a great account of what happened during the flu years in countries other than Europe and America. worth a listen!

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engaging, educational, surprising

I have been telling everyone I know about this book! A truly global history, with accessible information about epidemiology and scientific concepts for a non-specialist. I learned so much about the history of medicine, especially in non-Western nations, and the tangential effects that the 1918 flu had on virtually every aspect of 20th century life, whether we realize it or not. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of science, military history, cultural history, and everything in between.

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Read John M. Barry's Book Instead

Overall, it is a good book with interesting material. I don't like the way the author jumps around in an incoherently . . . which she somehow suggests in the prologue is a superior way to deliver the information. I also don't like how the story stresses individual historical accounts with little (albeit, some) reference to the science of infection, transmission, and biochemical characteristics of the flu virus. Personally, I listened to Barry's book several years ago and I liked his much better.

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Gripping story, terrible delivery

What made the experience of listening to Pale Rider the most enjoyable?

Story reads, without question, as a major international thriller, if you're interested in the history of medicine.

What didn’t you like about Paul Hodgson’s performance?

Sadly, Mr. Hodgson reads this book like a phone book. Every sentence has the same intonation, start with a little high note after the first syllable, then end the sentence in a deep drop of tone, accentuated with a slight vocal fry. This makes it sound like EVERY sentence is the last, as if in every period is the end of a thought. This, added to the e.g. chapter 3 being essentially a calendar listing of Spanish Flu appearances around the world, makes the narration absolutely impossible to follow. As pleasant as his baritone voice is, it is better suited to read copy lines for a television commercials, than nonfiction literature with extended thought processes, and side quotations. I wish I could return this purchase, I found myself transcribing the narration into sheet music more than once while listening to him. I am very disappointed.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

They all died!

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extremely informative; must read

this book goes into the mechanics of a flu pandemic. I found it extremely informative and I feel like I understand the reality of flu. I like how the author ties the rise of the Trump family to the 1918 flu pandemic.

2 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Jan
  • MKE
  • 04-13-18

Must read !

pandemic, historical-figures, historical-places-events, historical-research, history-and-culture ----
Impressive body of work. Much more comprehensive yet detailed than any other writings on this subject that I have read, it is not just a statistical report but a compilation of information gleaned from writings from many countries around the globe. The majority of other readings are focused on Europe and North America, while this includes translations from China, Russia, South America, and anywhere else afflicted. The role of The Great War in its transmission is explored as well. The devastation left behind by this pandemic amounted to a great deal more than the casualties of the war. I feel that this should be required reading for all healthcare workers as well as historians.
I have the audio interpreted by Paul Hodgson who was truly remarkable.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • RD
  • 12-14-17

stick to the facts

This is an interesting subject, long overlooked. But this work would have been more trustworthy if the author had left out the evolution propaganda.

4 of 18 people found this review helpful