When I was an elementary school student in Southern California and discovering for myself which books I enjoyed, I often gravitated towards biographies. Some of my favorites were biographies on Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan, Harry Houdini, and Harriet Tubman. I still remember the covers of each of those books, all of which were worn with use. (In fact, the Helen Keller biography still sits in the bookcase next to me, as do many other childhood favorites.)
I mention this because I know that Terrible Typhoid Mary, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, would’ve been added to the group. It’s exactly the kind of biography I would’ve read again and again. Not only is it a fascinating true story, but it’s also extremely thorough, and written so well that everyone involved is brought to life. The reader is immersed in colorful descriptions and an interesting cast of characters, who just happen to be real people. (Dr. S. Josephine Baker, one of the first female doctors in the United States, is also prominently featured.) We can just imagine the increasing rage building on Mary Mallon‘s face when Health Department employee, George Soper, finally tracked her down and tried to explain that she was a carrier of Typhoid and was making others ill. We can also imagine the scene where she chased him–and others after him–out of her kitchen with knives and a few choice words.
Mary Mallon’s story is captivating for many reasons and the author covers them all. As the first “healthy carrier” discovered (but not the last,) many important human rights issues are brought to the surface. Did the government have the right to arrest and quarantine Mary when, technically, she had not broken any laws? Did it have the right to insist that Mary give samples of her blood and bodily waste? Were Mary’s stubbornness and violent temper the reasons she was singled out and forced into decades of isolation? Could her situation have been avoided?
The historical period of this real-life drama created other dilemmas. There were hoards of new immigrants flooding into New York City at the time. Sanitation was becoming more of a challenge as population increased. Indoor plumbing, daily baths, and sewers were not yet the norm. The idea that microscopic germs cause disease was also extremely new. (Vaccinations were even newer.) Germ theory was a difficult concept to explain and a source of skepticism among the masses. And Mary Mallon, a proud, hard-working Irish immigrant who worked her way up the domestic ladder to become a cook for elite families, refused to hear that she wasn’t clean and that she had infected the households who ate her meals. But where do her rights begin and end? Doesn’t the Health Department have a responsibility to stop the spread of disease and prevent an epidemic?
Adults, young adults, and elementary school children will enjoy Terrible Typhoid Mary. It’s the perfect marriage of writer and subject. Teachers and home-school parents will also appreciate the author’s comprehensive bibliography, a terrific example of citing primary and secondary sources that could even be used in a separate lesson. As a biography for school-age readers, this one is as good as it gets.
A well-deserved 10/10 Stars