Top positive review
Humanizing a Looming Figure in Medical History
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on June 4, 2022
Bourdain is a master storyteller and if you found this book rifling through Amazon, that's likely why you're here.
You will not be disappointed.
Bourdain manages to take a look at Mary as a woman who lost everything through both chance and her own making. The book provides a wealth of context that doesn't allow Mary to be a blameless victim or a heartless monster. She's simply a person, who thanks to a disease she couldn't treat, lost her trade. Her life. Her ability to function in the world.
Did she have typhoid? Yes. She caused deaths. Intentionally, or knowingly, or not makes little difference.
Could she simply have washed her hands better and avoided detection? Also yes. But she was also a product of her time. Others did the same- or worse.
Mary Mallon was a walking disease vector. She was also a woman that moved to America to escape poverty and managed to make her way, only to have it snatched away from her.
The book does not excuse the harm she caused, nor the harm inflicted upon her by her captors. Necessary as her captivity may have been, she was treated horribly many times along the way.
If any of us were told that we were not allowed to do the one thing we could to improve our lives, wouldn't we be angry? Would we try to run?
Add to that the fact many people see their job as a part of their identity. What are you, when part of your sense of self is shorn away while you are still physically able to embody the identity you built?
Mulling all that, I am left with an amount of sympathy for Mary I did not expect.
Some of my buy in is admittedly based on my love of Bourdain's work. I have admired the man for many years. Much of this book is hypothesis, conjecture, and reconstruction.
Even knowing all that, I cannot shake the feeling that as much of a public threat Mary was, she deserved the little kindness given to her and then some.
Such is the power of storytelling.
Read it. This slapshod summary does not give this visceral book justice.