Today’s book is aimed at a young audience but fascinated me all the same, what with me being so young at heart and all that. Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is a concise history of the events leading up to the imprisonment of Mary Mallon as a “healthy carrier” of typhoid who inadvertently spread the disease to many of the households in which she worked as a cook. Before I picked this one up, I knew absolutely nothing about Typhoid Mary, beyond being familiar with the name. After reading, I feel I have been much enlightened and am slightly chagrined (and mildly disappointed, admittedly) to discover that most of my assumptions were utterly wrong.
I am also submitting this one in the Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the comfy armchair.
Let’s crack on. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
What happens when a person’s reputation has been forever damaged?
With archival photographs and text among other primary sources, this riveting biography of Mary Mallon by the Sibert medalist and Newbery Honor winner Susan Bartoletti looks beyond the tabloid scandal of Mary’s controversial life. How she was treated by medical and legal officials reveals a lesser-known story of human and constitutional rights, entangled with the science of pathology and enduring questions about who Mary Mallon really was. How did her name become synonymous with deadly disease? And who is really responsible for the lasting legacy of Typhoid Mary?
This thorough exploration includes an author’s note, timeline, annotated source notes, and bibliography.
Five Things I’ve Learned From…
Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America
- If a woman walks like a man, it is likely she is hiding a deadly secret, according to the learned opinions of sanitary officials of Mary’s day.
- If you find yourself inexplicably transported to the time before electric refrigeration, declining the dessert menu might save your life as well as your waistline.
- Much like today, the popular media of the past was a great means for spreading unfounded hysteria, misinformation and fear-mongering yet catchy nicknames.
- Mary may not have actually been the deadliest cook in America, but one of a (not very hygienically washed) handful of such cooks
- Even if you have been labelled the deadliest cook in America, there will always be some people who are happy to eat your baked goods.
As narrative nonfiction books for youngsters go, this is a surprisingly engaging tale that attempts to look behind the scandalous headlines and get to the crux of Mary Mallon and her role in inadvertently spreading disease through her role as a cook for well-off households. The early chapters read a bit like a detective story as health officials attempt to find the cause of an outbreak of typhoid within a prominent family. I was drawn in from the start and the first half of the book had me guessing and deducing along with George Soper, a sanitation engineer with big dreams of unmasking the first “healthy carrier’ of typhoid in America.
I appreciated the way in which the author looked at the “chase” from Mary’s point of view. It was very easy to sympathise with her when, out of the blue from her perspective, a strange man turns up at her door telling her she is spreading a deadly disease and demanding she provide samples of bodily fluids. It was not hard to picture Mary’s aggressive response to such an approach.
The second half of the book, which concentrates on Mary’s imprisonment on a hospital island for years at a time, moves at a much slower pace than the first half and takes a more in-depth look at the legal rights of Mary and the government orders that kept her from release. The competing forces of individual rights and protection of the public are discussed at length as the author points out other cases (the “Typhoid Tom, Dick and Harries” as I thought of them) of people who were known to be healthy carriers responsible for infecting others, but who weren’t imprisoned.
I will admit to being slightly disappointed that the story behind the headlines was reasonably dry and based in legality. I was hoping (and feel free to think of me as a scurrilous rascal if you like) for a real humdinger of a tale in which a murderous and downtrodden servant deliberately brought low the upper classes before trip-trapping off to do it again in another unsuspecting city.
Instead, the author has created a very readable biography in which the characters spring off the page and the inconsistencies in the treatment of Mary in comparison to others in her situation allow the reader to get an insight into why Mary might have behaved in the way she did. Based on this experience, I would be very interested in reading more nonfiction by Bartoletti in the future, and I would recommend this to scientifically-minded youngsters and as a great conversation starter for classes learning about public health or individual rights.
Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 9/10
Until next time,