In March I read a brief review of deadly, a new book by Julie Chibbaro in the New York Times Book Review. Of deadly, Pamela Paul writes,
Paced like a medical thriller, “Deadly” is the rare Y.A. novel in which a girl’s intellectual interests trump adolescent romance. A 16-year-old Jewish tenement dweller in 1906 New York pines away days at a finishing school on scholarship and nights helping midwife young mothers. When she quits school to assist the Department of Health and Sanitation in its pursuit of “Typhoid Mary,” she is awakened to nascent opportunities for women in science.
I couldn't wait to get my hands on this book and, once I did, read it almost in one sitting. Besides writing a truly unique and fascinating story based on actual events, Chibbaro has graced her book, which could be a sterile, scientific case study, with a thoughtful, emotional main character who is at turns passionate about her interests and unsure of her desire to pursue her passions.
The overarching story of Mary Mallon, the woman more famously known as "Typhoid Mary," is fascinating in and of itself. Chibbaro includes an informative Author's Note in which she writes of her desire to present Mallon as a person and not a symbol. Mallon's behavior when confronted with the fact that she could be a carrier of a disease that she had never suffered from may seem remarkable, bordering on insane, to us now, but Chibbaro does a masterful job of sketching her as a person with motivations and hopes that seem reasonable, considering the time. And, while Chibbaro admits that she was forced to condense the timeline of some of the major events of this story, she includes many of the actual people who were part of this story, including the last family to employ Mary Mallon, a family who fought for her release from quarantine and possibly even helped to bring Mallon's lawsuit against the Department of Health and Sanitation. And, while the story of Mary Mallon and the steps it took to link the common elements that the typhoid sufferers around the city shared and follow the path that pointed to her is fascinating and fast paced, making this book very hard to put down, the story of Prudence Galewski and her past and her future are even more compelling. Written in the form of a journal, deadly follows Prudence Galewski over seven very important months of her life, beginning in September of 1906.
When she was a child, her beloved older brother Benjamin, who was seventeen at the time, was struck by a horse and died from his injuries, most specifically the gangrene that set in. Devastated by the loss, her father, who had quit his factory job to care for his son, enlists to fight in the Spanish War and never returns. After Benjamin's death but before leaving for the war, Prudence's father gives her the Year Book of Facts in Science and Arts for 1897, a book that sustains her through the losses of her father and brother and the long nights helping her mother, who is a midwife. Her interest in science and her awareness of the death and illness that is all around her fuel her desire to understand the human body and what plagues it. When Prudence observes the girls at her school training to be secretaries, assistants and perfume girls at Macy's, jobs that the head of the private school she attends says will bring them "closer to the class of people we strive to be someday," Prudence writes that she would rather, "be able to go somewhere and do something important and return home in the evening with soft bills in hand. Is it foolish to want a different type of job than Mrs Browning trains us for, something more, something bigger than myself? Truthfully, I hunger for a job that's meaningful."
Not only does Prudence find a job that's meaningful, but through her work she comes to understand the meaning of her life. As she tentatively begins her work as assistant to Mr Soper, fulfilling the job position of typist and general note taker at the Department of Health and Sanitation, she finds in him a father figure whom she mistakes for a love interest. Chibbaro, through the voice of Prudence, does a marvelous job sharing thoughts and feelings surrounding her first foray into romance. Prudence watches her former classmates (she has had to leave school to take this job as the headmistress was unwilling to let her continue her studies and graduate while pursuing this kind of work) and best friend fall in love, get pregnant and married and feels that her heart is sealed off to this. She watches her mother mourn the loss of her father and is sure they are cut from the same cloth and meant to be alone. This idea is both bolstered and challenged by her job. Being the only girl working in her department, Prudence comes in for some unwanted attention from the young men working there and finds her commitment to science being challenged by them. Although Mr Soper is seemingly openminded towards women in science, when he takes her through the laboratories at the Department of Health, he does not think to let her do some hands on work. Prudence has to work up the courage to ask to be allowed to look through a microscope to see the disease she is helping to track down. In her journal Prudence writes of dedicating her passion to science and nothing else. However, spending so much time with Mr Soper and finding themselves in such unique situations (in a dive bar bribing Mary Mallon's "rummy" man into leading them to her, being screamed at and threatened with cutlery by Mallon herself) Prudence finds herself thinking of him as more than just her "Chief." When, through the mention of her name in a newspaper article about Mary Mallon, Prudence finds news of her father's fate, it is Mr Soper who is there to comfort her. He is there again when Prudence feels threatened by the attentions of a young man working in the lab. Already unsure of her ability to pursue a career in science because she is a young, lower class woman, she questions herself further when she finds her growing affection for Mr Soper coming between them in the workplace.
However, there is a wonderful teacher and mentor in the form of Dr Sara Josephine Baker who emerges half way through the story. Dr Baker informs and encourages Prudence of the possibility of attending medical school, but also provides her some very succinct and advice after observing her dilemmas with Mr Soper and Jonathan, the unwanted admirer. Dr Baker tells her, "You must be careful with your emotions. You mustn't allow your dislike of one man, or your love for another to interfere with your work and your studies. You must learn to stay neutral. Save your passion for yourself and the knowledge you must acquire." In a world where the sexes, of a certain class anyway, have remained separated outside of the home, Prudence has so much to learn by entering a man's workplace and hoping, one day, to be considered equal. As Prudence notes when she observes Dr Baker, "In her cool eyes, I saw the steeliness inside her - that hard place that allowed her to barge into strange houses and wrestle down disease. It was a place of pure resolve." On top of being a woman in a man's world, the nature of the work that she hopes to do seems to call for even more barrier breaking, breaking the customs of society at the time.
There are even more layers that Chibbaro adds to the marvelous story, but to go on here would be to tell the whole story of the book. Let me just say one more time, the voice of Prudence is an compelling one. The fact that she is unraveling the mystery of an actual epidemic that swept New York City and affected all classes of people, at a time when science was new and evolving, makes it all the more unique and marvelous. Every other page or so, I would stop reading and remind myself how little was known about the workings of the human body and disease one hundred years ago and wonder at how we got to where we are now in one hundred years. I will leave you here with a few more of Prudence's thoughts and Chibbaro's brilliant writing.
After reading about Dr Pasteur's work, a strange thing now happens to me when I travel with crowds of people in a public streetcar or omnibus. I see them as a myriad of undetected illnesses. Sicknesses we don't know yet, ones we can't yet diagnose. My eye picks out the weaker-looking ones, and I see the bacteria, as varied and crowded as a metropolis, living within them. I see my future work in these people.