Last Century’s Pandemic by Jeffrey K. Walker

To keep all you readers of A Writer of History enthralled, author Jeffrey K. Walker has contributed several posts for which I am very grateful. Today, he shares a timely perspective on pandemics.

Many thanks, Jeff.

I’ve written three novels all set during a pandemic. Okay, I advertise these books as “First World War and 1920s,” but that includes the time of what is known as the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918 to 1920. This particular strain of H1NI avian influenza didn’t originate in Spain, but even incorrect labels have a tendency to stick.

I didn’t prominently feature the flu pandemic in my books, but it does get a mention in two of them. In my third novel, No Hero’s Welcome, influenza explains why a young British officer who’d only come of age to join the fight in 1918 never made it to the front:

“His mother’s family had an ancestral heap in County Tyrone where he’d been dragooned into spending summers as a boy. As a result of this unenthusiastic connection to Ulster, he’d been commissioned in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in September 1918, just in time to contract the Spanish influenza. Out of consideration for his family’s feelings, he’d decided not to die, but instead endured a six-week convalescence, finally joining his battalion in France on the 14th day of November, 1918.”

In my second book, Truly Are the Free, the flu pandemic provided a convenient deus ex machina for killing off a supporting character. This was the oldest brother of my protagonist, a strapping and popular boxer within whose shadow the protagonist had long wilted.

Here’s what Ned Tobin thought about the flu and his big brother, Bobby:

“He couldn’t bear to imagine Bobby dying the way he saw those men in France, gasping and starving for air as they drowned in their own overflowing lungs. So the great Bobby Tobin, felled by no man in the ring, was carried away on the 12th of October, 1918 in an overcrowded New Jersey Army hospital by a little bug he couldn’t see, let alone fight.”

So a useful tool to deal with inconvenient minor characters. In hindsight, I should’ve made the Spanish flu a main character, given our current unpleasantness. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

But here’s something else I found out in my meanderings around last century’s pandemic. Besides the obvious similarities to our present coronavirus troubles, there was an eerily similar confluence of infectious disease and violence stoked by racism. 

With mass protests triggered by the on-camera murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, white America is getting an overdue history lesson, including for many a first encounter with the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

(Flashback scenes from this horrible event feature in the first season of the popular new HBO series, Watchmen.) In just over 24 hours of violence, triggered by a dubious allegation of assault by a white woman elevator operator against a black shoeshiner, as many as 200 black and 50 white Tulsans were killed and a prosperous African-American community was burned to the ground. However, Tulsa came two years after a much more widespread and deadly horror known as the Red Summer of 1919.

Let me set the scene—it seems impossible from our vantage point a century later. When the United States declared war on Germany in March 1917, there was debate within the African-American community whether or not to support the war effort. Some considered it a white man’s war fought for white men’s interests. But the majority, led by W.E.B. Du Bois and others, chose to support the war effort. The belief among most African-Americans was “if we fight a man’s war, we’ll be treated as men when we return.” They could not have been more wrong.

I based a pivotal scene in my second book on an actual event from the Red Summer. A main character, Chester Dawkins, returns to the United States after serving in a “colored” regiment in France.

Although the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, wouldn’t allow black troops to fight within his white infantry divisions, he did send four regiments to the French Army. And after four years of catastrophic losses, the French were ecstatic to have them. Since the rest of the American forces weren’t ready for combat when the Germans launched their final massive Spring Offensive of 1918, it was these “colored” Americans serving with the French Fourth Army who found themselves in combat longer than any other American troops.

It was with one of these regiments that my young Lieutenant Dawkins covers himself with glory, winning the Croix de guerre. When he finally returns home, he lands at the port of Norfolk, Virginia, and finds himself in a victory parade arranged by the black population of the city to welcome home their returning heroes. This hard-earned and well-deserved celebration is set upon by white Marines and sailors with clubs and rifle butts while the white police force looks on.

My young hero is rescued from this violence by a cook who pulls him into the safety of his café. He sits Chester down and pours him some coffee:

“Chester stared down into the blackness in his coffee cup. He was startled by the hot tears pushing against the back of his eyes. He’d seen men die, beat the Germans, made the world safe for democracy. And nothing had changed here. Nothing. He gave a sharp sniff, raising the coffee to his lips to camouflage his bitterness.”

The violence raged across the country from early spring to late summer. But it represented something new in the centuries-long oppression of black Americans — they fought back. With 350,000 African-American doughboys returning from France, they were in no mood to accept the subservient and servile roles assigned them previously.

In the end, more than 25 violent riots took the lives of hundreds of African-Americans and dozens of white Americans.

Just as these mass eruptions of violence were occurring, America was still struggling with an influenza pandemic. The Spanish flu ravaged America in three waves. The first hit the US from March through July 1918. This was the mildest wave, in a population of 100 million resulting in about 75,000 deaths (one of the more notable being a grandfather of the current President). The second and more deadly wave emerged in August 1918 and ran through January 1919, killing 200,000 more Americans. A third wave began two months later in March 1919 and flared into the summer, overlapping with about half the violence of the Red Summer.

There are of course significant differences between what America and the world faced during the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1920 and what we’re facing now. By the time the Spanish flu emerged in 1918, millions had been slaughtered in the carnage of the First World War.

The widespread deaths caused by the pandemic served to export some of the mass production of death from the battlefield to the home front. All people—both soldier and civilian—were exposed to death on a colossal scale.

Historically, these rapid and widespread moments of tragic death have had significant effects on social outlook, cultural norms, and even economic systems. In the 14th century, the Black Death (as the bubonic plague was known) killed somewhere between one-quarter and one-third the population of Europe in just a few years. Colossally tragic on a scale we can hardly imagine, the plague made an end of the perniciously unequal system of land ownership and wealth distribution known as feudalism. Labor is worth much more, after all, when they’re just not as many laborers. Although it was not the sole catalyst for the Renaissance, the Black Death was certainly a necessary factor. The omnipresence and capriciousness of death led to more interest in enjoying this life rather than worrying about what came after; many surrounded themselves with beauty.

Likewise, the widespread and unpredictable death from both the carnage on the Western Front and from the Spanish flu uncorked runaway innovation and breaking of all the rules in the artistic, musical, literary, design, and fashion worlds that would characterize the Roaring Twenties.

It may sound an odd thing to say, but history suggests we might not have had jazz or Art Deco or modern literature without the suffering and death of the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic.

It’s too soon to predict what will emerge from the suffering and death and confusion surrounding us now as we struggle with COVID-19. Certainly our short-term focus must remain flattening the curve and caring for the infected. But we can already see inklings of what may lie ahead in the Black Lives Matter protests, changing attitudes toward universal healthcare, and serious debate about income inequality in the United States.

It’s a curious thing with us humans. It often takes catastrophe to spur us into doing the right thing.

Originally posted June 28, 2020 on Jeffrey K Walker’s blog.

Check out Jeffrey’s Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy. You can find them on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Sweet Wine of Youth Trilogy by Jeffrey K. Walker

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Paris Deception by David O. Stewart

As a lawyer, David O. Stewart argued before juries, judges, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Supreme Court.  Now, he writes history and historical novels, looking for the people behind the stories, and for the stories that have been missed or misunderstood. In his novel The Paris Deception, he brings to light the aftermath of World War One, the people involved, the wheeling and dealing that set in motion circumstances that continue to affect us today.

History can help us formulate useful questions and prompt warnings about our own times. This is the case with The Paris Deception. Through the characters of President Woodrow Wilson, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George we gain insight on the conflicting values of countries, on the complexities of building peace, and on the weight of great responsibility. We see the United States in its ascendancy, Britain as its empire begins to fade, and the total collapse of Germany.

There have been many WWI novels: stories of families torn apart, the chaos and horror of war, the ineptitude of leaders, the longing for home; stories of intense camaraderie, unfaltering duty and heroism; stories of tragic loss and lives forever and devastatingly altered.

But what do we know about the peace process that followed WWI? Which leaders led the way or blocked the path to some sort of justice? Which borders changed and why? Which new countries were created? Which special interests were served? How did the conditions of peace sow the seeds for WWII and beyond? The Paris Deception is this novel.

I had the privilege of writing a foreword to The Paris Deception, which relaunched yesterday and asked David a few questions about the story.

What or who was the inspiration for your main characters James Fraser and Speed Cook?

Both characters were drawn from history, though they are only dimly recorded. The first book in this series – The Lincoln Deception – begins with a Delphic deathbed disclosure by former Congressman John Bingham of Cadiz, Ohio, to his doctor, concerning the John Wilkes Booth Conspiracy. So I decided that the small-town doctor, James Fraser, who heard that deathbed disclosure would become obsessed with it, and become one of my protagonists. I wanted him to have a co-investigator, which allows different personalities, and different talents, to be applied to the case. I discovered a fascinating contemporary figure, Moses Fleetwood Walker, who came from nearby Steubenville and was the last African-American to play in organized baseball between the 1880s and Jackie Robinson. Walker (the real person) was an aggressive “race man” who challenged the triumphant Jim Crow culture of the era. I thought he would make a fascinating foil and complement, rechristened Speed Cook, to my small-town doctor (James Fraser).

In light of today’s momentous support for Black Lives Matter, what aspects of the treatment of black Americans during World War One stand out for you?

I had a number of opportunities for the story to highlight the terrible wrongs inflicted on African-Americans then – and still today. Speed Cook’s son serves in an all-black unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters, but all the officers had to be white, and the American general staff didn’t want to use these soldiers at all. Consequently, that unit ended up fighting under French army command, and earning high distinction. Cook’s son, Joshua, also falls victim to a racist prosecution for desertion, while Cook himself is working with W.E.B. Du Bois, who came to Paris during the 1919 peace conference to be part of the Pan-African Congress. Finally, I was able to portray President Woodrow Wilson’s racism in private settings. Wilson grew up in Georgia after the Civil War and had the racist attitudes of that time and place, right down to the “darky” jokes he liked to tell.

Weaving real and fictional characters is a challenge for historical fiction authors. Why did you choose the real characters you did choose and how did you preserve authenticity?

The Paris Peace Conference offers a smorgasbord of fabulous historical characters. To give a grounding in the swirling negotiations of the peace conference, the story features cameo appearances by W.E.B. Du Bois, Winston Churchill, Chaim Weizmann, and Mark Sykes (of the hideous Sykes-Picot Treaty that whacked up the Middle East between France and Britain). More fully integrated into the story are marvelous characters like T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and French Premier Georges Clemenceau (one of my favorites). Three central characters for the story are President Wilson and two of his aides, the brothers Allen Dulles (future head of the CIA and a spy during World War I) and John Foster Dulles (future Secretary of State and an important figure in the American delegation). In pursuit of authenticity, I studied contemporary photographs of each, listened to voice recordings if they were available, and read contemporary accounts of the impressions they made on people.

Through the fictional characters of The Paris Deception, we also experience the war in flashback, understand the devastation brought about by the Spanish Flu, and feel the agony of having a son go off to war. Beyond being a wonderful story, The Paris Deception is history that is highly relevant for today.

The Paris Deception by David O. Stewart ~~ In the wake of The Great War, the city of Paris unites in jubilant celebration at the arrival of United States President, Woodrow Wilson. But amidst the prospect of peace, Parisians are dying as the Spanish influenza reaches epidemic proportions.

An expert on the deadly illnesses, Dr. Major Jamie Fraser, is called in to advise the president’s own doctor on how best to avoid the deadly disease and discovers, despite Wilson’s robust appearance, the man is frailer than most realize.

While trying to determine the source of Wilson’s maladies, Fraser encounters a man he has not seen for nearly twenty years: Speed Cook–ex-professional ball player and now advocate for Negro rights. Cook is also desperate to save his son Joshua, an army sergeant wrongly accused of desertion.

Pledging to help Cook, Fraser approaches Allen Dulles, an American spy, who is also Wilson’s close aide.

Soon Cook and Fraser’s quest intersects with dramatic events when the French premier, Georges Clemenceau, narrowly survives an assassination attempt, and the Paris Peace Convergence begins to unravel.

When the precarious German government balks at the grim terms of the peace treaty, Cook and Fraser discover that to save Joshua, they must find a way to preserve the fragile treaty, which may be the only barrier standing between Europe and another brutal war.

You can also read about The Lincoln Deception

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Bringing Past and Present Together

What struck me most profoundly when I first began researching World War One was the incredible slaughter involved. Yes folks, slaughter – according to Collins English Dictionary, the “indiscriminate killing of large numbers of people”. Wave after wave of soldiers sent ‘over the top’ to certain death. And if that wasn’t sufficient to make me reel with horror, add in the hellish conditions under which men lived for weeks, months and years, every day expecting to die some horrible death.

My grandfather was there. He was tall, dark haired, rather angular in limb and face. And he was smart, dedicated to his family, a man who believed in God and went to church every Sunday. Occasionally he was funny, although I remember him as a generally quiet man. The war took one of his lungs – a gas attack – and he died at the age of seventy-five.

MKTod NovelsMy first novel, Unravelled, was based very loosely on his life and that of my grandmother. My second, Lies Told in Silence, told a parallel story of the fictional woman he met in France and is also rooted in World War One. In each novel I’ve attempted to help readers appreciate what that war was like for soldiers and civilians, men and women.

As children we find it hard to understand our parents, to empathize with their worries and cares. As grandchildren, it is even more difficult to understand the lives of someone fifty or sixty years older. But now, I feel a deep sense of connection to my grandfather and grandmother. Through research, travels, novels, conversations with my mother, and my grandfather’s and grandmother’s scrapbooks I now understand the circumstances of their upbringings, the strictures and taboos of the time, the aspirations they had, the way they lived, the clothes they wore, the role religion played in their lives. Through visits to memorials and museums, the diaries of men who fought in WWI, and the exploration of government and private websites dedicated to WWI, I understand the devastation my grandfather experienced on the battlefield and the lingering effects of the war on soul and psyche.

Time and Regret – my latest novel – is set partly in WWI and partly in the 1990s and I like to think of it as reflecting my own journey into the past.

While attempting to solve the mystery her grandfather has left for her, Grace Hansen, the heroine of Time and Regret, explores her grandfather’s past and the war he fought in. Through his diaries, conversations with her grandmother, and her journey to the battlefields and memorials in France, Grace comes to know a different man from the one she knew as a child.

I too know my grandfather as a different man than the Grandpa of my childhood, and I admire him more than ever.

PS – that’s him on the cover of Lies Told in Silence at the age of nineteen going off to war.

You can preorder Time and Regret from Amazon.comAmazon.caAmazon.co.uk and other Amazon sites.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.