New York Houghton, 2015
Susan Campbell Bartoletti is a Newbery and Siebert Honor author, so it isn’t a surpise that this book about Typhoid Mary is thoroughly researched and as engaging as a novel. We know we are in for somthing good when the prologue warns off the squeamish and encourages the rest of us with unperfect germ fighting habits to read on!
Terrible Typhoid Mary pulls us into the world of an early 20th Century servant in a wealthy household by sketching out the marks of a “good servant” and matching those guidelines with the reputation of a skilled cook named Mary Mallon. Mary is trustworthy, hard-working, knows her place and the proper behavior expected of a cook. She is a good servant. Unfortunately, she is also spreads Typhoid to every household in which she works. To Mary, and many others of her day, germ theory was hightly suspect and the idea that she, a robustly healthy person, could be carrying and spreading typhoid fever while showing no symptoms, seemed out of the question.
We meet Mary Mallon in Oyster Bay, New York when she is hired to cook. Some weeks later, several members of the household fall ill with typhoid fever, but the authorities cannot determine how it came into the household. George A. Soper, Ph.D., a Columbia-educated sanitation engineer and epidemic investigator, noticed the disappearance of the cook and set about tracking her down. When Mary was located, Dr. Soper and his colleague, Dr. Josephine Baker, had the unpleasant task of confronting Mary and convincing her that (1) she was likely a healthy typhoid fever carrier; (2) she had been making people sick for years; and (3) she must be tested. It did not go well. Readers might become frustrated with Mary’s obstinant reaction, but still sympathize with her plight and her lifelong struggle with the public health authorities and the media.
Terrible Typhoid Mary is objective without being dry, and exciting without resorting to sensationalism. Bartoletti expertly fills the gaps in Mary’s documented life with interesting background information and some educated speculation. This story could be a jumping off point for a discussion on the line between personal freedom and public safety. It is written for middle-school readers, but would be appropriate for readers grade 4 and above. The photographs, notes, bibliography, and index round out this excellent choice for any elementary or jr. high library. The audio version of the book is terrific and an excellent companion to the print version for struggling or ELL students. It’s a must have for the germophobe in all of us!
Dewey: 614.5 Interest Level: Grades 4-8
Awards and Reviews: Booklist starred; Publishers Weekly; Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books; School Library Journal starred; Horn Book Magazine starred; Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) starred.
Younger Readers might like: You Wouldn’t Want to Meet Typhoid Mary! by Jacqueline Morley.
Older Readers might like: Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow
Fiction Pairing: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Audio: RadioLab’s The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation at http://www.radiolab.org/story/169882-typhoid-mary/.