Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: Pox Americana

Smallpox the disease has typically been relegated to the background story. In the annals of historical literature, the disease was typically portrayed as responsible for this and that, for the decimation of this population or the reason for so-and-so’s death. And then, alas, readers would discover that history changed its course. Although, smallpox’s role was consequential, the historical accounts of it remained tangential. Pox Americana reverses this trend in historical literature and breaks fascinating ground with a heavily-researched account in which smallpox – Variola personified – is the main character, shaping the people and places of colonial America.

Elizabeth Fenn begins every chapter with an anecdote about people. It is a reminder that smallpox holds no discrimination in its ruthlessness. Rich or poor, George Washington or David George, the black slave, “Variola’s story is necessarily a story of connections between people.” The first half takes readers back into the cottages of colonial America, where the practice of inoculation was just beginning to grow as active resistance against the scourge. Fenn’s meticulous research loops readers into the letters of John Adam, in which he describes his procedure, to the resistance the procedure faced by the poorer class because inoculation was limited to only those who could afford it. She traces the events of the American Revolutionary War into a series of culminating steps that pushed General George Washington into mandating inoculation for armed forces, a wise decision that would tide away the flow of class resistance.

In the second half of the book, Fenn focuses on the vast landscape West of the Mississippi, of the trials of the Native Americans with these events structured around a loose set of dates. Because a chronological account of this period and location is hard to define (much less, research on), the book loses the descriptive luster of the first half and boils down to a set of disparate dates and dismally shocking number of deaths one after the other.

Pox Americana succeeds in lifting the virus from the historical back-story and personifying it into a character that moves along in history. (“Variola found a steady supply of victims.”) As smallpox ceded to the American colonists win for inoculation, it moved to the West, its virulence looming in history and portending for further battle.

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