Review (Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America)

Bibliography: Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Terrible Typhooid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. Boston, Massachusetts: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0544313675.

Plot Summary: She was a reserved but well-liked cook that served for many wealthy New York families. She was an Irish immigrant whose past is not well-known before she went to the United States as a teenager. She had few friends and kept moving about for her job. She was always diligent at her tasks, toiling in fourteen-hour shifts. In a lot of ways, Mary Mallon is not who you would typically write a biography about. She was an aloof servant, usually a character that would be in the background of a story. Mary Mallon however killed people. She didn’t intend to, but she was a “healthy carrier” for typhoid fever in a time where germs were barely understood. After serving peaches and ice-cream to a family that nearly dies of the fever, her life changes and she is locked into a battle. Medical professionals want her to not harm people with her bacteria, Mary Mallon just wants to have a normal life with privacy. This is a book where there is no bad guy, but a thriller-like situation that is not as simple as readers would first think.

Critical Analysis: Bartoletti keeps a neat organization of all her research, having a photo album, a timeline, sources. One of the reoccurring themes of this book is the ethics and if it was right for the medical community and media to treat Mary the way they did. So, it is no surprise that the author does the ethical thing, putting up not only a bibliography, but also two pages for acknowledgments and permissions for those that helped with her research. Lastly, there is an index where people can look at any of the social, cultural, scientific, and historical aspects of this story. In fact, Bartoletti categorizes her bibliography into the following: Understanding Mary: In Her Own Words; Understanding Mary : From the Words of Others; Understanding Mary From Newspaper Accounts; Understanding Mary, Secondary Sources; Understanding Mary’s World; Understanding George Soper and Josephine Baker; Understanding Typhoid, Hygiene, and Disease; Understanding Public Health, The Law, and the Trust Factor; and Understanding Yellow Journalism. Bartolettie is all about understanding how Mary’s world worked and how the people in it behaved and why.

Bartoletti knows the good and bad sides of them all. She approaches everyone in a nuanced manner: George Soper (who wanted Mary quarantined and fought to catch her) is overly vain and is even resentful of Mary’s and Josephine Baker’s strength as women. At the same time, however, he does genuinely care for public health. Josephine Baker is also dedicated to her job in health (she too also believes Mary needs to be arrested), but she has prejudices against Irish people like Mary. As for Mary Mallon, she is dedicated to her work but obstinate to many people. Mary is vulnerable to public perception of her but refuses to listen to reason.

What Bartoletti also does effectively is embrace the mysterious character of Mary Mallon. “To her employers and fellow workers, Mary never spoke of her growing-up years. Most of what we know about her comes from a few documents, from what others say about her, and a six-page letter written in her own hand.” Bartoletti trusts readers to decide for themselves why Mary distrusted medical professionals, why she wanted to continue cooking, and refused to admit that she carried a disease, despite evidence. Bartoletti lays out the context of the world Mary lived in, where “Good servants understood that all Americans were equal, regardless of class. But they also understood that employers were more equal than servants…For many employers, a good servant meant a specific race, nationality and religion.”

Bartoletti never overloads the information for the reader. Instead, she lays out all the action in a linear fashion and then adds context in areas that need context for twenty-first century reader. She also does not hold back from imagery such as describing North Brother Island, where Mary lived in isolation in a clinic. “Today, if North Brother Island has any secrets to tell about Mary Mallon, it guards them closely. The island is overgrown with kudzu, porcelain berry, poison ivy, weeds, and thickets. Riverside Hospital and other buildings are crumbling or lie in ruins. The tiny cottage where Mary lived for nearly twenty-six years is gone.” With this one paragraph, she manages to showcase what a haunting case Mary Mallon was and how her treatment impacts how we treat people in this day and age. As Bartoletti later states: “As a society and as individuals, we must protect healthy people from disease. We must also treat those suffering from disease in an intelligent, human, and compassionate way.”

Mary never got that. She was quarantined twice against her will. She could not hold a steady, decent-paying job. Her privacy was destroyed when newspapers gave away her name. Suddenly, she goes from Mary Mallon to “human typhoid germ,” “human culture tube,” “human fever factory,” and “Typhoid Mary.”

Review Excerpt and Awards Won:

NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book (2016); Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 (2016); ALA Notable Books for Children 2016; 2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

Following excerpt is from The Horn Book, written by Jonathan Hunt, August 12, 2015:

“Bartoletti focuses…on Mary, using her as a lens through which to view — and analyze — a wider swath of American society. What was it like to be a servant, an immigrant, a woman at the dawn of the twentieth century? Bartoletti skillfully weaves the answers into the beginning of the story, before moving on to Soper’s cat-and-mouse game of tracking Mary down and then keeping her quarantined for most of the rest of her life. And there are questions remaining at the end, too. How do we balance the rights of the individual with the safety of the entire community? Why was Mary made a public scapegoat, while other healthy carriers walked free? Despite the novelistic trim size and narrative, the book contains the hallmarks of excellent nonfiction: a photo album, timeline, source notes, bibliography, and index.”

Connections: This book can be used to facilitate a group discussion with young readers about how the whole case was handled. Would you have agreed that Soper approached Mary the right way? Does Mary have a right to feel angry about how she is treated? Would things have been different if Mary was not Irish or female or a servant? Another connection can be to discuss the basics of health, what constitutes as a cold or a flu, what are myths about diseases, and whatnot.

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