Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: Pox Americana

   Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth A. Fenn insightfully follows the spread of smallpox throughout the entire North America between the titled years by compiling and analyzing various primary documents. Using sources ranging from Catholic Mission archives to personal diaries, Fenn paints a illustrative portrait of the suffering smallpox creates and the vital role it played during the US's formative years. In fact, the book strongly asserts smallpox's spread as a concise and telling documentation of both Natives-Americans' and settlers' development. Each chapter focuses on a specific location during the period and explores how smallpox arrived there. Short narratives mark the beginning of each chapter, providing vignettes that enable the book's anthropological and scientific facts to possess the appeal of a historical fiction book. That said, Pox Americana is as informative as it is easy to read.
   The book's strengths lie in Fenn's talent in weaving together a multitude of primary documents to create a detailed historic tapestry; it is undeniably well-researched. She not only offers several scenarios for how smallpox reaches and disperses in a certain region but also finely argues the one she believes most plausible. She carefully explores the virus's impacts in various sectors of society, from politics and economy to biology and technology. Furthermore, Fenn compares and contrasts how different cultures reacted to the Variola virus. For example, Fenn dedicates one chapter on the mandates General George Washington passed when he lead the Continential Army in the Revolutionary War and another chapter on how the entry of guns and horses in the Central Plains altered tribal relations and produces an environment perfect for Variola to proliferate. After reading Pox Americana, readers will be able to vividly see how the Variola virus shaped the development of the US.
   However, I must warn readers that the weakness of the book exists within the strengths-- sometimes, there simply is too much information. In one paragraph alone, readers can find up to (and sometimes more than) five distinct dates and incidents. I occasionally feel as if Fenn is cramming all the information in there. Throughout the book, I'd think to myself, “Okay, I get the point” after reading a semi-exorbitant number of accounts that leaves readers confused and annoyed. Other than that, Pox Americana is a thoroughly good read for historians, biologists, and the general curious population alike.

1 comment:

  1. Just finished "Pox Americana" as well--

    Although Fenn's book is undeniably well-researched (and, yes, even a bit evidence-heavy!) I couldn't help but get the feeling, towards the end, that (maybe due to excitement about her own Smallpox-Safari?) she had started to see Smallpox where there really may have been none.

    Much of her discussion of smallpox in the Northwestern U.S. and Western Canada, for example, relies on observations of ship captains and explorers who, most likely familiar with the outbreaks of smallpox in the East, cite evidence of the disease in the native populations they encounter: "Several among them...have the face deeply marked with the small-pox" (p230).

    I couldn't help but doubt these types of quotes, which Fenn uses to establish Smallpox's spread. So many other things--chicken pox, measles, pimples--could cause a face to become "deeply scarred," and, in an era in which paranoia about smallpox seemed to be fairly common, couldn't these explorers--who most likely didn't have any medical background--simply be misdiagnosing the people they observed?

    Written records from hospitals (on the East coast of the U.S., for example), created by doctors who saw patients actively contracting the virus, seem to establish the scope of the epidemic in that region with far more certainty. As the book progressed, however, I began to feel less and less sure of the evidence (much of it similarly gained from explorers' observations) about the epidemic in the West.