Happy New Year, folks–I’m back! (I’m sure you all missed me dreadfully.) I hope your holidays were lovely. We had the opportunity to spend LOTS of time with family, and that’s the best part of any holiday. I’ve got more than one book waiting to be reviewed, however, so without further ado I give you Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. Mary is Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s latest non-fiction for young people, her earlier works of non-fiction having earned her a Newbery Honor Award and a Sibert Medal (among other things). I’d heard of Typhoid Mary before reading it, but I was pretty vague on details, and that turned out to be a good thing; many of the “details” floating around out there seem to be creations of the yellow press of the early 20th century. Bartoletti does an exceptional job of giving us not only what accurate details there are to be had, but the context of those details as well. Mary Mallon, in the light of that context, is a terribly sympathetic figure.
Unfortunately, she is also a little known one; Bartoletti works hard to present as many facts as possible, but the necessity of carefully stated supposition (“Due to such and such a cultural practice of the time, Mary may have felt such and such”) in order to present the facts in their proper historical setting affects the flow of the writing. It’s unavoidable, in my opinion, but I wish I hadn’t been reading it over the holidays. All the activity of the season made it harder to focus on a story that was already only as smooth as it could be. Mary, however, is still an unequivocally fascinating book from multiple standpoints. The most obvious, of course, is a historical one, but scientifically (and legally!), it reminded me a bit of a junior cousin to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Either way, it’s a worthy addition to the world of intermediate non-fiction.