Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco, by Marilyn Chase

Rating: 5/5
Publisher: Random House
276 pages
Source: Library Book

Description: “San Francisco in 1900 was a Gold Rush boomtown settling into a gaudy middle age. . . . It had a pompous new skyline with skyscrapers nearly twenty stories tall, grand hotels, and Victorian mansions on Nob Hill. . . . The wharf bristled with masts and smokestacks from as many as a thousand sailing ships and steamers arriving each year. . . . But the harbor would not be safe for long. Across the Pacific came an unexpected import, bubonic plague. Sailing from China and Hawaii into the unbridged arms of the Golden Gate, it arrived aboard vessels bearing rich cargoes, hopeful immigrants, and infected vermin. The rats slipped out of their shadowy holds, scuttled down the rigging, and alighted on the wharf. Uphill they scurried, insinuating themselves into the heart of the city.” (From the hardcover edition)

Review: This book tells the story of how, despite capitalism, bureaucracy, and racism, the bubonic plague was brought under control in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.

The characters and setting are all well introduced, but from a 21st century standpoint, I found it hard to understand the beliefs some people held back then. (Certainly, the belief that the Chinese were more prone to bubonic plague, owes more to racism than logic.) I think this is more the problem of me being too far removed  from the idea that diseases are caused by "bad air" than an actual problem with the book.

The author paints a compelling picture of the battle against a deadly disease, complicated by a city that was far too image conscious to admit what was going on, a lack of personnel and funds, Victorian medical knowledge, and a devastating earthquake. She also clearly shows how this lead to the bubonic plague being endemic in the American west.

It's a fairly quick read, only about two hundred pages for the actual story, and well written. If you're interested in this kind of subject, it's well worth your time.

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