Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary

Bookendsfatal feverCindy: Please wash your hands before you read this post! Measles, whooping cough, and now an outbreak of typhus … in youth literature, that is!

A few years ago, Lynn and I posted about a fictional Typhoid Mary story, Deadly (2011) by Julie Chibbaro, and I was intrigued about Mary Mallon and her real story. This year we have not one, but two nonfiction accounts to read to learn more about this woman (who was the first identified healthy typhus carrier in the U.S.), and the people who tracked her down and then had to decide what to do with this threat to the people of Manhattan.

Today’s post is going to focus on Gail Jarrow’s Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary (March 2015) and we have Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America to look forward to in August, because we just can’t get enough of this fascinating disease story.

What more do you need to hook a middle schooler?

Jarrow jumps right into the story with an opening passage that will serve as your booktalk:

Early on a damp March morning in 1907,  Mary Mallon answered the knock at the servants’ entrance of a New York brownstone house. She took one look at the visitors and lunged at them with her sharp fork. As they flinched, she ran toward the kitchen.

Mary knew why they were there. A few weeks earlier, a well-dressed man with a mustache had shown up, accusing her of outrageous and horrible things. Later, he followed her. Cornered her at her friend’s home. Acted as though he had the right to stick her with a needle and steal her blood.

Mary was on the run. She’d already planned her escape, should it be necessary, and wound up hidden in a small outside closet at the neighbor’s house.

Mary shut the door behind her and crouched down.

She didn’t know it, but she wasn’t alone in that cramped, cold closet. Deep inside her body, billions of deadly microorganisms were hiding, too.

Oooh…what more do you need to hook a middle schooler? That’s all it took for several of our book club 7th grade girls who read Jarrow’s Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat (2014) to argue over who got this first.

Dare we tell them that Jarrow is finishing out her disease trilogy with an upcoming book about the Bubonic Plague? Be still, my heart.

Lynn: I love this book despite the fact that as a confirmed hypochondriac I usually avoid disease books like the … well, the plague! Like Jarrow’s equally fascinating Red Madness, this book reads like a mystery. Who was this person who seemed to leave death in her wake and how could she not be sick herself?

There is a very interesting structure to this book, too. After starting with that vivid scene with Mary Mallon, the book shifts to introduce the key figures in the story, beginning with George Soper and his pivotal role in the horrific typhoid outbreak in Ithica, NY. This terrible event killed 82 people and sickened 1,350 people. While chronicling the event, Jarrow provides a fascinating explanation of typhoid and the conditions that allowed the disease to flourish. She provides a wealth of historical and scientific information in a way that never slows the dramatic story.

I also love the photographs, illustrations, and design of this book. This is a visually compelling book with really terrific period photographs, newspaper articles, and intriguing sidebars. Jarrow does a stellar job with her source notes and there is an extensive bibliography that I want to track down despite my tendency to instantly develop all the symptoms!

Excuse me, please, I need to go wash my hands.

Common Core Connections

Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

Did the New York State Department of Health have the right to quarantine Mary Mallon away from her work, family, and friends? Cite evidence from the text to support your claim.

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Have students research the current debate about mandatory vaccinations, comparing that controversy with that of quarantining Typhoid Mary and others with contagious diseases. Where do you draw the line between personal freedom and concern for the health of the public at large?

nonfiction-mondayVisit the Nonfiction Monday blog for more youth nonfiction recommendations each week from a variety of bloggers.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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