The best books about pandemics, historical and fictional

Marcia Calhoun Forecki Author Of Blood of the White Bear
By Marcia Calhoun Forecki

Who am I?

I divide my reading between works of imagination and historical nonfiction. All good fiction requires research to enhance it’s authenticity. Several years ago, I published a story set in the 1918 influenza epidemic. The research for the story was fascinating, and led me to John M. Barry’s book included in my recommendations. After editing a memoir for retired screenwriter and film director, Gerald Schnitzer (sadly now deceased), he invited me to co-author a novel set in the Four Corners featuring a virologist who combines science and spirituality to find a cure for a pandemic, which became Blood of the White Bear

I wrote...

Blood of the White Bear

By Marcia Calhoun Forecki, Gerald Schnitzer,

Book cover of Blood of the White Bear

What is my book about?

Images of White Bear Kachinas erupt from the dreams of virologist Dr. Rachel Bisette and invade her consciousness. Kachina calls for relief from a hantavirus epidemic in the Four Corners. Rachel rushes to the Southwest to lead the search for a vaccine. Only one survivor of the virus is known, but she is elusive. Eva Yellow Horn, an indigenous healer, carries the gift of immunity. As Rachel searches for Eva, she discovers this healer’s gift of healing beyond science. Eva also knows the truth about the deaths of Rachel’s parents years earlier, when her father investigated the Church Rock spill of radioactive waste. The pandemic is fiction, but the spill and its consequences are historical facts.  

The books I picked & why

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Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

By Geraldine Brooks,

Book cover of Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

Why this book?

A personal narrative set in a fearsome historical event is an unbeatable combination for any fiction lover. Anna Firth, a housemaid and an unlikely heroine narrates the course of sickness to inevitable death in 1666. Village religious leaders, resigned to sacrifice the village to end the Plague, self-quarantine the village. We see through Anna’s eyes the despair of giving care when superstition outweighs science. In such chaos, Anna struggles with the temptation of an illicit love. As the plague invades every household, her neighbors turn from prayer to superstition. Especially fascinating is Anna’s role changing from caregiver to suspected witch. Anna struggles to survive and hope as a year of catastrophe becomes annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders."


By Oliver Sacks,

Book cover of Awakenings

Why this book?

A fascinating, readable nonfiction account of patients who contracted sleeping-sickness as children in the great epidemic of 1918. They grew to adulthood in a Bronx hospital, frozen in sleep for decades. The prognosis was hopeless until 1969, when Dr. Sacks dared to try a new drug, L-DOPA, giving his patients an astonishing, explosive, “awakening.” Dr. Sacks recounts case histories of his patients, their lives, and extraordinary transformations from his treatment. This book is a passionate exploration of the most general questions of health, disease, suffering, care, and the human condition. The patients’ realization of themselves as adults is heartbreaking. Dr. Sacks wrote:Awakenings came from the most intense medical and human involvement I have ever know.”


By José Saramago,

Book cover of Blindness

Why this book?

Magical realism is accepting the impossible as a premise. José Saramago creates an inexplicable epidemic of "white blindness" which spares few in a single city. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, where they are victimized by criminals who hold everyone captive, steal food rations, and rape women. One eyewitness to this nightmare guides seven strangers through barren city streets in an uncanny procession through fearsome surroundings. A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation and a vivid evocation of the horrors of the twentieth century, this powerful novel of man's will to survive against all odds. José Saramago was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Bird Box

By Josh Malerman,

Book cover of Bird Box

Why this book?

This edge-of-your-seat thriller begins five years after the first intrusion of a force so terrifying that it must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. Malorie and her two children survive alone until the youngest is old enough to escape. All blindfolded, they set off by rowboat to a place where they might be safe, relying on Malorie’s wits and the children’s trained ears. The narrative moves between past and present without identifying the source of the madness, unleashed only when a victim sees its source. This debut novel is a gripping work of imagination focusing on the human spirit to persevere and overcome. 

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

By John M. Barry,

Book cover of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

Why this book?

This brilliant non-fiction work by John M. Barry is fascinating for its scholarship and engaging prose. We learn about the source of the H1N1 influenza virus in birds through its mutations to a deadly pandemic engulfing the globe and responsible for killing an estimated 50 million people. In addition to writing layman’s course in virology, Mr. Barry focuses on individuals who perished and those who searched unceasingly for a vaccine. This is the most timely of books for readers who have endured the twenty-first century coronavirus pandemic. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in pandemics, dystopia, and World War 2?

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