Tuesday, June 27, 2006

An American Plague:

An American Plague : The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 got on my list because it's a Newbery Honor book and also because I'm into diseases and plagues. (It's a biology thing, coupled with the bird flu scare.) As a biologist, I was (stupidly) expecting to learn about the pathology of the disease, and modern treatments, and how we've all but eradicated it through the use of vaccines. I should have looked more closely at the cover, which shows a colonial-era-style drawing of someone in bed, and big letters saying "1793".

About two chapters in, I realized it was a history book, not a science book. And I could have slapped myself for expecting interesting science in a kids' book. (See, kids aren't smart enough for real science.*) It was an account of the epidemic. The affluent people left town, the infrastructure collapsed, a few people took charge, got organized, and eventually everyone either survived or didn't. And then the black people got criticized for their help. The whole thing reminded me of Katrina, but I suppose that's probably what happens in just about any emergency. if only we'd learn.

I can imagine having a class discussion using this book. "For homework, list things the people did that helped control the outbreak, and things they did that didn't help." Then in class tomorrow, we'll create our own plan for dealing with a medical emergency. I wish the author had done this, or that there was some sort of discussion about it, or that I could make the white house cabinet read the book and do these assignments.

I finally got what I wanted (the science) in the last chapter, which talked about more recent outbreaks (it never really went away), that there's still no treatment or cure, and that we don't make a vaccine, so if there were an outbreak, we would just have to suffer. Luckily, I've been inoculated (because of travel abroad), so I know we do have some vaccine, but it's very expensive and probably in small amounts.

I know that keeping the reader in 1793 is effective in making the reader understand the gravity of the situation, but I would have enjoyed some side commentary, especially on things like the proposed treatments (Rush treated people with large quantities of mercury to make them puke-- do we understand why that might have appeared to help treat the disease?) and the spread of the virus (we now know it was through mosquitos, but might infected people who fled have also spread the disease?)... I'm not sure how to correctly punctuate the end of that sentence; it's unbelieveably flawed, so I'll just leave it like that.

Anyway, good book. Long on the history, short on the science. But still interesting and compelling. What makes a good non-fiction book? You answer that, because I haven't read enough of them to know.



*Sarcasm. Most adults think they're not smart enough for real science, which is why I always get, "Gee, you must be real smart," when I tell people I'm a scientist. Contrary to popular belief, everybody's smart enough for science, it's just that we don't teach real science until high school, and by that time there's a stigma and only the smart kids do it. Add to that the problem that science (like math) is taught sequentially, and it takes a long time to learn the good stuff. So nobody ever bothers to learn anything important, and then they go and ban stem cell research.

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