It’s October, so the Reading into History family book club decided to tackle a scary topic in history and, unfortunately, today: disease outbreaks. Our book this month has been Deadly by Julie Chibbaro, and we’ll meet to discuss the book on Sunday, October 19 from 3-5 pm here at the Museum. If you want to not only discuss the history of diseases but also women’s rights and immigration —and meet the author and see original historical documents up close—we had better see you at the meeting!
In Deadly, readers follow the fictional Prudence Galewski as she helps to find and stop a mysterious woman who carried a horrible disease, typhoid, in her body and spread it to others while never getting sick herself. In 1906, when the novel takes place, the idea of a disease “carrier” seemed to most to be the stuff of science fiction, but it was real; this woman’s name was Mary Mallon, and she came to be known as “Typhoid Mary.” Was she a villain, a victim, or both? Prudence and readers alike struggle with these questions as they learn of Mallon’s reluctance to accept her condition and the harsh treatment she received by police and medical experts. Here is how one publication depicted Mallon in an illustration. What imagery do you see here? What does this artist want you to think and feel about Mary Mallon?
We spoke with author Julie Chibbaro, who will join us on Sunday, about her life and her book. Read what she has to say and come meet her this weekend.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What were you like between the ages of 9 and 12?
Julie Chibbaro: I was a city kid, child of divorced, unhappy parents, with two older sisters. I had a sense I loved books, but not necessarily of their value. My 4th grade teacher had rows of books, and I would take them home, devour them, and leave them in my secret spot behind my bed. After a while, my parents caught me with about 50 books hiding in my spot! Needless to say, they made me take them back, and my teacher instituted a new rule about book returns. I also loved to rollerskate, bike ride, play with my sisters, but in my darkest, loneliest, happiest moments, books were always there for me.
DCHM: What is your favorite time period in American history? Why?
JC: That’s a hard one. There are so many great stories! I’d have to say the Gold Rush fascinates me. All these men and women going from the East to the unexplored West in horse and wagon, with the intention of digging up gold to get rich. Some of the stories were extreme failures (look up the Donner party), and some were huge successes. That theme feels very American to me.
DCHM: What is the coolest thing you’ve ever seen at the New-York Historical Society?
JC: The first moment I walked into the Historical Society, I was hushed by its grandeur. Intimidated. Yet it also felt very accessible to me, like I could spend hours there (and I did). That’s the coolest thing.
DCHM: What is your favorite place in New York City? Why?
JC: I’d have to say it’s a tie between Chinatown and the Central Park Zoo. I love the foreignness of Chinatown, the different smells and tastes and people. The Zoo reminds me of my mom, who took me there a lot as a kid. I miss her.
DCHM: What made you want to write Deadly?
JC: Many reasons. Typhoid Mary was a woman I’d known about as a kid, and wanted to know more. For years, I wanted to write something set in New York in the early 1900s. I was fascinated by early medicine, which seemed crude and outrageous (I had come across bloodletting and the use of leeches in my research for my first book, Redemption, which takes place in 1524, and found that those things were still being used in 1906!) I also felt it was timely – salmonella was a big subject in the news when I started writing Deadly, and of course, many of the big viruses, AIDS, SARS, and now, Ebola, are still present, and need to be conquered.
DCHM: What 3 words best describe Deadly?
JC: Discovery. Power. Prejudice.