This review and others are posted at Inspiring Insomnia.
Cleo Barry is a normal high-school girl, with normal high-school girl-type concerns in Portland, Oregon in 1918. All of her friends have their post-high school lives figured out: marriage for some, or college, or traveling. But Cleo has "no plan. No dream. No calling." Her parents died when she was young, and her older brother, Jack, and his wife, Lucy, have guardianship of Cleo. Jack and Lucy are headed to San Francisco for six weeks to celebrate their anniversary while Cleo remains behind, presumably safe at her boarding school. The deadly Spanish Influenza has begun to hit cities on the East Coast, but in the early twentieth century, that seemed a world away. But when murmurings of an outbreak in Portland begin, panic breaks out. Schools and churches are shuttered, and all public gatherings are banned. Since Cleo's guardians are not available to care for her, she must remain quarantined in the school until the ban is lifted. Instead, Cleo sneaks out and heads to her empty home.
Cleo finds the meaning in her life she'd been seeking when she joins the Red Cross. Hospitals and medical professionals are stretched thin due to the number of infected people, so volunteers like Cleo are critical. The idea that she could become sick seems not to be a major concern for Cleo, as she is more interested in saving those who can be saved and providing comfort to the dying. It's hard to read a work of historical fiction set in such a terrifying time as this and not think, "What would I have done?" Some people locked themselves away, praying for the epidemic to pass, some abandoned their dying family members, and some, like Cleo, exhibited an enormous amount of bravery. As terrible as the epidemic was, it would no doubt have been much worse without the help of volunteers who risked their lives every day. I appreciated this fictional story of one girl who represented all of those brave volunteers.
Cleo has a very quiet romance with a WWI veteran and medical student named Edmund. It is not the centerpiece of the story, however, and Cleo is allowed to grow and mature and find purpose in her work. Maybe "romance " is too strong a word for this relationship; sweet, affectionate friendship might describe it better. In either case, it doesn't define Cleo, and the lack of the usual, "romance-y" trappings highlight the fact that Cleo needs more than a few kisses to give her life meaning.
Note: I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.