John Gunther introduced the story of his son, Johnny's illness and death by quoting from John Donne's famous poem of the same name
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful"
Death Be not Proud is a memoir and traces the difficulties, trauma and triumph over a tumor and the fight before it ultimately claims his son's life. As a parent, coming to terms with the effects of the tumor is life-altering and Gunther, an accomplished writer and journalist writes the story from a subjective position adding depth and meaning to the account.
Johnny shows an indomitable spirit and continues with his school work, successfully graduating and receiving the admiration of his peers. The book questions, and leaves for the reader, the fairness of a life so promising - abruptly ending. Answers to these questions are only cautiously answered, leaving the reader to contemplate and reflect, drawing his or her own conclusions.
The story unfolds as Johnny tries to come to terms with the tumor as it progresses then recedes and then grows again. Johnny epitomizes
a typical young person caught up in an unthinkably horrible situation
He has aspirations like any other teenager and shows an aptitude for science which will never be realised. Johnny must remain confident and fight - effectively - for every breath, to ensure that his life is not wasted but truly, (and not in any way cliched), a celebration.
The extent of Johnny's illness is apparent in the detail presented by Gunther, his father, without being pretentious and sticking to facts that can be understood by anyone - not overly technical or medical.
Johnny , after the discovery of the tumor is operated on but only half is removed and after initially recovering, he quickly regresses as the tumor transforms itself. An experimental dose of mustard gas is administered after which Johnny tries to catch up on his schoolwork. After several months of hospitalization, experimentation and even an unusual diet, Johnny recovers and, for a brief time, the family believes he is cured.
The hope does not last long and Johnny is subjected to more trauma as the tumor returns and grows. Johnny is trying to prepare himself for Harvard and his frustrations show. After his school graduation, there is more for him to endure and shortly thereafter, at age 17, he dies in his sleep.
Death Be not Proud includes diary entries and stories written by Johnny together with the philosophical thoughts of John Gunther and his ex-wife Frances.