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Book Review: Fever Season: The Epidemic of 1878 That Almost Destroyed Memphis, and the People Who Saved It by Jeannette Keith

Synopsis:  While the American South had grown to expect a yellow fever breakout almost annually, the 1878 epidemic was without question the worst ever. Moving up the Mississippi River in the late summer, in the span of just a few months the fever killed more than eighteen thousand people. The city of Memphis, Tennessee, was particularly hard hit: Of the approximately twenty thousand who didnt flee the city, seventeen thousand contracted the fever, and more than five thousand diedthe equivalent of a million New Yorkers dying in an epidemic today.

Fever Season chronicles the drama in Memphis from the outbreak in August until the disease ran its course in late October. The story that Jeanette Keith uncovered is a profoundand never more relevantaccount of how a catastrophe inspired reactions both heroic and cowardly. Some ministers, politicians, and police fled their constituents, while prostitutes and the poor risked their lives to nurse the sick. Using the vivid, anguished accounts and diaries of those who chose to stay and those who were left behind, Fever Season depicts the events of that summer and fall. In its pages we meet people of great courage and compassion, many of whom died for having those virtues. We also learn how a disaster can shape the future of a city.

First Line:  When those who lived through the epidemic tried to describe it, they talked about the sudden eerie quiet.

Random Quote:  The epidemic set Memphis’s course in an entirely new direction.  By the end of the century the Bluff City had become a less cosmopolitan place, with an economy that serviced the cotton trade and a population drawn increasingly from poor white and black southerners.  While white Memphians set about systematically taking away the rights blacks had attained during Reconstruction, Bob Church rose to wealth and power, in the process creating an oasis in which black cultural and economic dreams could flower.  Bob Church’s Memphis became the home of the blues and the cradle of rock ‘n’ roll.

Review:   I was born in Memphis and lived there until I was midway through middle school.  It’s changed a lot since then, but I still consider it home and hold it close in my memories.  I’ve gone back when I could – to eat barbecue and look at the river.  The Mississippi River is at its widest point at Memphis and if you grew up with it you’ll be spoiled forever for any other river – it’s just that breathtaking, insinuating itself into your veins.

Fever Season tells a story of heroism and chicanery, of the beginnings of the breakdown of barriers between the races and the subsequent breakdown, and most of all of an event that changed the city itself forever in ways that no one could have imagined.  Ms. Keith’s book is a fascinating and detailed account of the epidemic and the sociocultural and political context that informed how it was fought.  You cannot wrap your brain around how many people died and how fast.  In a chapter on the clergy who stayed you realize that almost all of them died and the ones that came to replace them died, too.  Doctors, nurses, wealthy businessmen, poor whites and blacks – almost everybody died.  The story is staggering, inspiring, poignant, maddening, and in many ways terrifying.  You see, there still isn’t a cure for yellow fever, and an outbreak today would spread and spread and kill and kill without serious (and probably unconstitutional) quarantine efforts.When I was in elementary school I was fortunate to be admitted to the first year of the Talented and Gifted program at my school (which is now an “optional school” with an emphasis on enriched learning and college prep).  It was a lifesaver for me because it was so much more challenging and I got to do some really cool things.  One of the projects I did was a slide presentation and written report (no PowerPoint back in those days) on the Yellow Fever epidemic described in this book.  It was so amazing to realize that so many people could be felled by mosquitos, although I wasn’t really surprised.  Mosquitos were an ongoing problem in the city when I was a child and I can remember the trucks out spraying for them in the summer and the kids in school who become ill with mosquito-born disease.  Mosquitos are very serious and scary little bugs.

I became very interested in parasites and infectious disease and their influence on evolution when I was in college and graduate school for biological anthropology and remain fascinated to this day.  All this is leading up to my reason for getting this book.  So far as I know there hasn’t been a good modern book on the epidemic and I wanted to know more.

Fascinating, deeply researched, and well-written, Ms. Keith will hold your attention to the bitter end.  The world will look different to you after you read this book whether or not you have a connection to Memphis.  Try and keep the mosquito population down, y’all.

FTC Disclosure:  Copy from publisher for review via NetGalley

Publishing Information:  Bloomsbury USA – October 2, 2012

Format:  Kindle


Reading Challenges:  A to Z Reading Challenge, Literary Exploration Reading Challenge, Non-Fiction/Non-Memoir Reading Challenge

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