A creative approach, strong on vivid details and words that appeal to the senses, animates this biography of Typhoid Mary.
It opens like a novel, with a scene in 1906 of a wealthy woman firing her cook. In “a terrible fix” to find a new one, she hires an Irish immigrant named Mary Mallon, who, unknowingly, turns out to be a typhoid-fever carrier later dubbed Typhoid Mary. The chapter’s title, “In Which Mrs. Warren Has a Servant Problem,” and its final one-sentence cliffhanger, “Mary’s life was about to change forever,” reflect literary techniques typically found in fiction, while art nouveau typeface for chapter titles and a closing “Photo Album” create an old-fashioned tone. The chronological narrative quotes from such primary sources as contemporary newspapers and books and incorporates information about the disease and the fight to eliminate it. In trying to supplement limited personal sources about Mallon, Bartoletti bogs down her writing with language like “perhaps,” “most likely,” “must have,” and “may have.” Responsible though such introductions to supposition are, the result is a narrative that feels uncertain and may have readers wondering about unvoiced alternative scenarios. One section, meant to tie the past to the present, misinterprets a Gallup poll, incorrectly stating that most Americans don’t trust their local governments.
Awkward attempts to improve on an inherently interesting topic undermine this otherwise fine account. (Nonfiction. 10-14)