Saturday, April 11, 2015

Capturing the Chaos: A Page-Turning Account of Finding Typhoid Mary

            What makes Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow so attention grabbing is that it is written like a mystery story. There is a terrifying and puzzling problem—typhoid outbreaks that cannot be stopped or even understood—and dedicated health professionals are trying to figure out what is happening. This book reads like a mystery and uses “mystery words and phrases” such as detective, clue, hunch, and evidence. Yet it is a nonfiction account based on extensive research.

            Readers experience history unfolding as people experienced it. We feel the anxiety, fear, and terror people felt as they confronted the disease. We also feel the courage, determination, and hopefulness with which people confronted it. This makes the book a gripping page-turner, but also an enormously informative one.

            This book can be read and discussed in several different, complementary ways:
1.     It can be read as a mystery by posing these questions:
·      What is the mystery that needs to be solved?
·      What are the possible causes of the problem?
·      What did investigators learn by gathering evidence and interpreting it?
·      What questions still remain?
2.     It can be read with a focus on historical context—the “then-and-now.” What was life like during this outbreak of typhoid in the early 1900s? There are many instances when the author reminds us that conditions were different then. We can look for familiar/unfamiliar contrasts. What was different then? What was the same as now?  
3.     It can be contrasted with Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. Both accounts cover much of the same information, yet are also unique in many respects. This makes them excellent choices for discovering how nonfiction accounts vary because of the questions authors raise, the information they select to include, and they way they structure and present information. 

Several years ago—2008 to be exact—Mark Aronson, our fellow blogger, wrote about how important it is for history books to present the “terror of the unforeseen” when writing about the past because it reflects what it was like to live with uncertainty and anxiety. These two books do that, making them excellent choices for examining real decision-making, real coping under stress, and real human emotions. That’s what well-written history mysteries offer. 

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