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Monday, November 19, 2012 9:29 am
The American Plague
Posted by: MaryKate Perry

I read Molly Caldwell Crosby’s book because I am forever chiding myself for not reading enough informative material. And no, Diary of a Wimpy Kid didn’t count even though I was doing “research” in my daughter’s book bag last week. I tend to seek solace and escape between the cozy covers of a novel and am a hesitant reader of nonfiction. And so it was with heavy heart and lazy mind that I tossed the wimpy kid over my shoulder (don’t worry, he’s used to it), hoisted up this book and began.

While reading The American Plague I was also working my way through David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, with my seniors book group. McCullough made a useful overlap with The American Plague since both books cover the late 1800s. McCullough has a chapter about the Americans who crossed the Atlantic to study medicine and it opened my eyes to the state of the medical field in the United States at the time when the scourge of yellow fever was hitting Memphis, Tennessee.

Despite being amply forewarned by the word “plague” in the title, I was unprepared for the graphic vision of human suffering I would encounter in Crosby’s writing. Black vomit, oral bleeding, jaundice: I felt like I was peering into Hades. The devastation visited on southern cities, in the not-so-distant past, was difficult for me to fathom.

It took years to establish that the virus was not directly contagious from person to person but traveled through the intermediary agent of the mosquito. If you wondered what purpose the little darlings serve besides batfeed, it is this: they ensure the endurance of viruses. The work of the doctors on the Havana Yellow Fever Commission involved controversial sacrifices necessary in order to achieve this hard-won key to understanding the disease.

This book offers multiple avenues for discussion on public health controversies, medical ethics, etc. If your book group finds that epidemics and ailments suit them, consider another recommendation from the friend who loaned me Crosby’s book: Pox; Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphillis by Deborah Hayden.

Let us briefly return now to the question of fiction addiction. Gentle readers and fellow addicts, what is this abiding urge we have to dive headlong into the pages of a story, seeking refuge from even the most pleasant of real lives? I plan to pursue this question further, but first I need to swath my house in an enormous mosquito net so I can curl up and enjoy my novels in peace.

One Response to “The American Plague”
  1. Shelley Says:

    Speaking of American plagues, those who enjoyed Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl special last night might be interested to know that there is also a book version of the documentary available from PBS. Perfect for book groups.


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