Wednesday, March 23, 2011

deadly by Julie Chibbaro

We've all heard of "Typhoid Mary". Who was she? What was her story?
Deadly is a smart retelling of the story of Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant who worked as a cook in New York City in 1907. Her story is told through the diary of 16 year old Prudence Galewski, a young Jewish girl living in New York City at the turn of the 1900's.

Prudence and her mother, whom she calls Marm, are alone and struggling to make ends meet. Prudence hase suffered the loss of both her father and her brother. Her father, Gregory Galewski is missing in action, having gone to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American war of 1898, while her brother Benjamin died from gangrene. Prudence is interested in science and more specifically in why people get sick and die. She has a secret desire to understand the human body. This desire originated from her experiences helping her mother who is a midwife. Of course, in 1906, these sort of inquiries are not expected from young women.

Instead she is stuck learning how to walk on her toes, draw portraits and embroider at Mrs. Browning's School for Girls where she has been enrolled by her mother in the hopes of improving her social status. After applying for numerous typist jobs, Prudence is offered a unique job in the New York Department of Health and Sanitation. There she is an assistant to Mr. George Soper, a Sanitary Engineer who as head epidemiologist for the department, investigates the causes of disease epidemics. It is the perfect job for Prudence who tries to learn everything she can about the body, disease and how people get sick.

Initially, Soper is sent out to investigate an outbreak of typhoid at Oyster Bay on Long Island. When tests at the house fail to find the source of the outbreak Prudence makes an astonishing discovery that leads them to consider the cook as a possible source. That cook is Mary Mallon. When they approach Mary she is uncooperative, violent and refuses to be tested. And so begins the struggle to quarantine and test Mallon - one of the first recognized "carriers" of disease. When she is finally captured and Soper's theory is proved correct, they must deal with the ramifications of their actions. They have taken an apparently healthy adult woman, arrested her and placed her in quarantine with other patients who are sick.

Matters are further complicated when Prudence finds herself forming an attachment to Mr. Soper. Added to this, Prudence herself has also reached an important personal turning point in her life. Her acquaintance with Dr. Baker makes Mary aware for the first time of the possibility of studying medicine.

Prudence is more an observer to the actions of Soper and Dr. Baker than a participant. Chibbaro develops Prudence in the role of a character of conscience in deadly. She is someone who questions the actions and motives of the New York Department of Sanitation, the police and the medical profession in the case of Mary Mallon.
"How did he and Dr. Baker find the strength necessary to take the cook from her life they way they did? ... And was it right? I felt as if we had broken the law. We had no warrant for her arrest, no right to raid her employer's home. Her typhoid was still speculative. Weren't we obliged to release her?"
Prudence sees Mary as a person with dignity, instead of a unique medical case to be investigated.
"Besides the obvious question - does she really carry the typhoid germ? - there are still so many unknowns to her case. What is her history? Who is she, and where has she been?..."
"It's one thing to follow the course of a disease through observation and questioning. It is truly another to be out jailing human beings suspected of carrying germs....The whole incident was immoral."
This is in direct contrast to Mr. Soper who seems clinical and whose concern is focused more on the families who have hired Mary and the people who are sick. It seems his lack of concern for Mary begins when she starts to resist any attempts to test her as a carrier. She is robust and healthy and doesn't believe she could make anyone sick.

Eventually Prudence feels deeply conflicted over the Mary Mallon situation. The conflict she senses is that between a scientist's quest to learn and the dignity of the human person. There is also the balancing of the rights of the individual person with those of society. Prudence worries she will not be able to consider medical cases from a purely scientific point of view if she were to study medicine. In a meeting with Dr. Baker, she confides her concerns;
"I saw illness as a kind of week, something that could be found and cleaned away. I didn't think it could live inside a person without sickening or killing them, not like with Mary. Now it's as if the disease and the person are inseparable. When the police officer threw Mary in the snow and they locked her up, they were treating her like a disease...."

It is therefore, through the thoughts of Prudence, that Chibbaro wants us to consider Mary Mallon's position and what it must have been like for her. She tells us in her Author's Note that she wanted a sympathetic protagonist for her retelling of the story of "Typhoid Mary". She wanted someone who understood the immigrants position in early 20th century American society and how they might have perceived the Mary Mallon situation.

Typhoid was a bacterial disease that killed people by the hundreds and even thousands. Medical professionals and sanitation experts had been working for years to clean up the municipal water supplies and improve sewers and sanitation. They often faced great resistance from a public who couldn't understand the science behind the policies.

Mary Mallon was one of the first living examples in support of a new theory put forth by Dr. Koch of Germany; that a healthy person could be a carrier of disease without actually becoming ill from it.
This idea was so revolutionary, that many people had great trouble accepting it just as they had great trouble believing many years earlier that tiny microscopic organisms were responsible for disease. For Mr. Soper and Dr. Baker, it must have been supremely frustrating to deal with someone like Mary Mallon and her supporters. The scientific evidence pointed to her being the cause of the typhoid outbreaks, yet she saw herself as a victim of Irish prejudice and fear.

It's easy to judge the past from the comfort of the present given our modern, highly efficient investigative tools. Soper and Baker did not have much in the way to offer Mary Mallon as treatment and therefore this made the situation more critical and requiring more direct means of action. Chibbaro puts the Mary Mallon situation in to perspective considering the social situation and conditions that existed in the time in America

Chibbaro's novel is well written and engaging with the story having a touch of romance. Young readers will learn about a controversial event that had a major ramifications on public health policy. Along the way they will be rooting for a female protagonist living in society on the cusp of new scientific discoveries- discoveries that would forever change the day to day life of most people.

Book Details:

deadly by Julie Chibbaro
New York: Antheneum Books for Young Readers Simon & Schuster 2010
293pp

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