See more of the story

The best nonfiction, in my mind, reads like a novel. It's filled with compelling characters and takes you to a place you'd never otherwise experience. It tells a story that grabs you by the throat and won't let you stop reading.

"Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship at the Dawn of a Pandemic" falls into that category, with frightening similarities to other narrative nonfiction I couldn't put down: "Five Days at Memorial" by Sheri Fink, set in a sweltering hospital with critically ill patients after Hurricane Katrina wiped out power, and "The Siege" by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, which traps you inside the Taj Hotel in Mumbai as terrorists try to pick off guests one by one.

In "Cabin Fever," the invader is the coronavirus, which is attacking passengers and crew stuck on a cruise ship. The Zaandam left Buenos Aires with about 1,800 people on March 8, 2020, prepared to make its way down to the Strait of Magellan, along the western coast of South America, through the Panama Canal and then to Florida.

But we all know what happened in mid-March of 2020, as cities and countries began locking down amid the spread of COVID-19. People on the Zaandam thought they'd be fine — as far as they knew, the virus was in China and Europe, not South America.

But one passenger bragged, "I just got off a cruise ship in China." Another from Sweden, playing bridge with other passengers, couldn't stop coughing but said, nonchalantly, "I always got a cough on the airplane; it's from the air-conditioning."

As people start getting sick, country after country refuse to let the ship dock to let people get treated, or even just get off the Zaandam to make their way home.

Since everyone is stuck on the ship, the crew plans group activities so passengers won't get bored. No masking, no social distancing — but elaborate buffets, a poker tournament, and "Formal Night." To make matters worse, the Zaandam left port with no COVID tests and very limited medical supplies. Anyone who felt sick was given Tylenol and cough syrup.

You don't need a vivid imagination to realize this will lead to serious illness and deaths on the ship. The two journalists who wrote "Cabin Fever" — Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin — take us inside the Zaandam and its increasingly dire situation through extensive interviews with several passengers and crew members as they battle COVID and fear for their loved ones.

While the people at the core of the story talk about their terror and coping strategies during the worst of their confinement in small cabins (some without windows), I would have liked more reflection from them on how they survived the claustrophobic experience.

But the book does what it sets out to do as a true-life page-turner. Smith, who covered the Zaandam's journey for Bloomberg Businessweek, and South American journalist Franklin have done a masterful job of detailed reporting on what happened, what went wrong and how it all ended.

Laura McCallum is an editor at the Star Tribune.

Cabin Fever

By: Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin.

Publisher: Doubleday, 253 pages, $30.