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Book Reviews: "How Few Remain: The Anatomy Of A Plague" by Harry Turtledove


By Chris Oakley

(inspired by the life of Harry Turtledove and the novel Earth Abides by George R. Stuart)



From the New York Times, October 11th, 1985:

It has been more than two decades since the Da Nang Plague burst out of Southeast Asia, ravaging more than half of North America and pushing humanity to the brink of extinction. Entire countries were wiped out of existence before the cure was finally discovered; it may take generations if not millennia for the world to recover from the catastrophic blow the plague inflicted on the human race. Even now some parts of the world are still crippled by the plague and the social chaos unleashed in the plague’s aftermath.

One area particularly devastated by the Da Nang Plague was the once-bustling city of Los Angeles; the circumstances which led to its eventual abandonment by its few remaining inhabitants at the height of the pandemic have never been completely understood or documented. That may change, however, with the publication of How Few Remain: The Anatomy Of A Plague($25.50, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), a series of diary entries written by a plague victim named Harry Turtledove, who was in his teens when the plague first struck L.A. and who would end up being one of the last people to succumb to the lethal contagion before the handful of uninfected residents still in the city were evacutated to safer ground.

Turtledove’s journal, first discovered by a National Guardsman during the final stages of the Los Angeles evacuation and later edited for publication by the staff at Columbia University’s Biological Catastrophes Institute, is a fascinating glimpse into the last days of what historians now call "America’s Pompeii". It is also a very moving portrait of a young man trying to maintain some tiny semblance of a normal life in the face of perhaps the worst biological disaster in human history. In vivid and crisp prose Turtledove guides us through both his personal struggle with the Da Nang Plague and the larger fight to keep Los Angeles as a whole alive. Sadly, both battles would be lost: Turtledove would be dead before his sixteenth birthday and Los Angeles would become the world’s largest ghost town as the few remaining citizens not infected by the lethal Da Nang virus chose to be resettled elsewhere by the U.S. government rather than risk joining the millions of victims of the disease.

From Turtledove’s accounts of the first plague victims being treated at Cedars-Sinai Hospital to his final commentaries about his own impending death, How Few Remain is a poignant time capsule of the worst calamity in human history. It also gives a window into what Turtledove’s future might have been had he survived the plague; interspersed with his journal entries are rough drafts for a science fiction story titled "Guns of the South" about time travelers journeying back to the American Civil War and supplying machine guns to the Confederate Army in an attempt to change the results of the Battle of Gettysburg. While the narrative of "Guns" is still somewhat raw even after editing, it hints at a literary potential that was tragically snuffed out by Turtledove’s demise. One can only imagine what kind of success that Turtledove might have achieved in later life had he been allowed to live beyond the age of fifteen.

The book also includes hand-drawn illustrations done by Turtledove and black & white photographs made by the National Guard troops who supervised the evacuation of Los Angeles. Particularly striking are the snapshots taken by a Guard medic of an abandoned Dodger Stadium just before the final mass cremation of dead bodies of Da Nang plague victims. Those photos of a once-great sporting venue now lying empty are a poignant symbol of the devastation the plague wreaked not just on LA, but on all the people of the world. In some respects, readers may find these pictures reminiscent of the desolate photo landscapes at the Guggenheim Museum’s recent "Abandoned L.A." exhibition.

Last but not least, How Few Remain has a supplemental map illustrating the sectors of metropolitan Los Angeles that were hardest hit in the early days of the plague. For casual historians and serious plague era scholars alike, this supplement is an invaluable tool to anyone wanting to understand the Da Nang virus epidemic and its consequences. Indeed, the entire book is a welcome addition to the roster of plague era non-fiction literature; Los Angeles was a microcosm of the virus’ terrible effects on the human race, and any book that explores the devastating consequences the plague had for the once-splendid metropolis is one which definitely deserves space on readers’ bookshelves.


The End


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