Occasionally unfocused, but redeems itself by putting a vivid, human face on an unimaginable nightmare.



A ground-level illustration of how the plague ravaged Europe.

For his tenth book, science writer Kelly (Three on the Edge, 1999, etc.) delivers a cultural history of the Black Death based on accounts left by those who witnessed the greatest natural disaster in human history. Spawned somewhere on the steppes of Central Asia, the plague arrived in Europe in 1347, when a Genoese ship carried it to Sicily from a trading post on the Black Sea. Over the next four years, at a time when, as the author notes, “nothing moved faster than the fastest horse,” the disease spread through the entire continent. Eventually, it claimed 25 million lives, one third of the European population. A thermonuclear war would be an equivalent disaster by today's standards, Kelly avers. Much of the narrative depends on the reminiscences of monks, doctors, and other literate people who buried corpses or cared for the sick. As a result, the author has plenty of anecdotes. Common scenes include dogs and children running naked, dirty, and wild through the streets of an empty village, their masters and parents dead; Jews burnt at the stake, scapegoats in a paranoid Christian world; and physicians at the University of Paris consulting the stars to divine cures. These tales give the author opportunities to show Europeans—filthy, malnourished, living in densely packed cities—as easy targets for rats and their plague-bearing fleas. They also allow him to ramble. Kelly has a tendency to lose the trail of the disease in favor of tangents about this or that king, pope, or battle. He returns to his topic only when he shifts to a different country or city in a new chapter, giving the book a haphazard feel. Remarkably, the story ends on a hopeful note. After so many perished, Europe was forced to develop new forms of technology to make up for the labor shortage, laying the groundwork for the modern era.

Occasionally unfocused, but redeems itself by putting a vivid, human face on an unimaginable nightmare.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-06-000692-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2005

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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