Our latest Notable Narrative conjures a fairy tale from mundane medical tragedy. Atlanta magazine reporter Thomas Lake takes a story that would normally be a statistic—the death of a healthy young man from swine flu—and makes it memorable.
From the beginning, we know the conflict: John Behnken will meet a virus for which he is the “perfect host.” Lake surveys the Centers for Disease Control’s vast prevention efforts then introduces us to the joyous man with oddball dreams of receiving an outsize check and having a Viking funeral. A seemingly irrepressible life careens toward the blind, efficient pathogen, and we brace for the crash.
The surface story is, of course, Behnken’s life and death. Woven into that, a medical narrative lays out the history of vaccinations, the reasons some people don’t get them and the worst consequences of that decision.
We liked the way details from early in the piece about Behnken’s childhood appear again at the end, but the story fascinates us partly because it pulls off more delicate techniques. Lake uses the second person assertively (“Even if you knew John Behnken well—and if so, you probably loved him…”), which can be tricky. In this instance, it builds our confidence in the narrator and lends a conversational air to the piece.
Fairy tale language about a child who is miraculously saved but then later lost to what should be a minor threat evokes classic literature. Lake taps into wonder in the face of grief.