Richie's Picks: DEADLY
- Richie's Picks: DEADLY by Julie Chibbaro, Atheneum, February 2011, 304p., ISBN: 978-0-689-85738-6"In pondering Mary Mallon's response, I think that Mr. Soper's accusation in front of her employer must've given her a great surprise and embarrassment. But I don't think we were wrong. We simply asked her for a test of her fluids. I'm beginning to see that people in the sciences often have to think in a different realm, somewhere beyond human emotions. They must hold their feelings in a dark cave deep inside themselves and never release them. They can't be afraid of embarrassment, neither in themselves, nor others."Yet I think it must be tremendously difficult to accept that you have a thing living in you, a disease that you can't see, or taste, or touch. One that doesn't make you ill. Perhaps it's too frightening for her to contemplate. It's not like lice you can just pluck off your skin, or a rash you can heal with cream. And it's never been proven. But this cook, if she has any sense, must suspect that Mr. Soper's accusation is right."Which should take precedence: a person's right to freedom or the public's right to a healthy, protected community? What legal or extra-legal shortcuts might public health officials be permitted to take in order to avert future deaths?And how -- on a more generalized level -- should we weigh the rights of the individual against the interests of society?I had heard of the moniker Typhoid Mary, but knew zero about the real person, or even if there was such a real person. And so I was fascinated by the true story that is revealed through reading DEADLY, Julie Chibbaro's fictionalized account of the events in New York City and Long Island at the dawn of the Twentieth century involving the real person who was so nicknamed. It is a deadly tale involving the woman who is suspected of repeatedly -- if innocently -- being responsible for spreading typhoid fever to a succession of families for whom she would become a cook.The story is told from the point of view of a fictional character named Prudence Galewski. Prudence is a poor, intelligent, teenage girl -- the daughter of a midwife -- who leaves school to work for Dr. George Soper, the real-life sanitary engineer who tracked down Mary Mallon. Despite legal wrangling and some public protests, the real Mary Mallon ended up spending most of the rest of her life being involuntarily quarantined.As a guy reader, I could have done with a little less drama in terms of the teen narrator's prolonged agony over finding herself crushing on her brilliant adult employer. (Eye roll.) Nevertheless, I found more than enough fascinating stuff here regarding the state of medicine and public health one hundred years ago -- along with that legal wrangling -- to keep me engaged. It caused me to imagine what it would be like to be in Mary Mallon's shoes. Would I be so freaked out as to deny the evidence, react violently, and end up in a seemingly-hopeless adversarial fight against the State, or might I remain sane enough and seemingly cooperative enough to attempt negotiating some reasonable long term solution that would leave me better off than living the horror that Mallon's life must have been for the decades after she was tracked down and locked away?Beyond learning about the events surrounding the real Typhoid Mary, much of my fondness for this story comes from contemplating how the specific legal issues here fit into a more generalized level of tension between the rights of the individual and the interests of society. This is a clash of rights and interests that can arise and has arisen in so many varied situations that might or might not have anything to do with public health.For instance, if I own a rental property or a family business, do I have the right to not rent to or employ someone with whom I am uncomfortable because he or she is black or gay or Muslim? Does society have a legitimate interest in compelling me to rent to or work with that individual despite my discomfort or beliefs? If so, why does society's interest trump my desire not to act against my beliefs or my level of comfort? What about my rights versus society's interest in regard to a fetus developing inside of me? Or what about my right to cultivate and smoke pot versus society's interest in preventing my doing so (which is something about which I had to make a choice in the voting booth yesterday)? Where and how is the line drawn?This is the kind of stuff that is forever facing us in terms of government and society, and what makes this particular believe-it-or-not story so interesting and relevant today.Richie Partington, MLIS
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