Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Review: Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn

With Pox Americana, Fenn crafts a sprawling narrative detailing the overlooked smallpox epidemic of 1775-1782 in the Americas and the tumultuous times of revolution that surrounded it. While the global devastation caused by smallpox over the past few centuries has been well documented, Fenn’s book offers an uneven but often compelling perspective on the events that shaped America’s birth, deftly elucidating the undeniable influence of smallpox on the course of the American Revolution.

Pox Americana begins with an account of the American army and George Washington’s struggle to fight off both smallpox and the British; the narrative is especially gripping here, as it provides a detailed glimpse into how prominently smallpox factored into both side’s war strategies. Fenn then traces smallpox’s journey through North America by detailing the lives of the various peoples who inhabited America and the constant struggle to coexist with the lethal contagion and carry on with their lives. With the myriad stories of the colonists waging war to the Native Americans running the fur trade, Fenn raises many themes that still resonate today, particularly the use of biological warfare and how the American way of life facilitates the transmission of disease.

The scope of Pox Americana is breathtaking. Fenn clearly poured over many, many sources to craft her portrait of an infant America irrevocably shaped by the smallpox epidemic. The research pays off; the role of smallpox in George Washington’s decision-making process and the tragedy that befell countless Native Americans makes for compelling history reading. Yet Fenn’s narrative is not without its share of flaws. While it may be a function of the historical events themselves, Pox Americana is a very top-heavy narrative; it starts out strong in its depiction of the American Revolution but loses steam throughout the second half of the book, when the revolution is no longer the focus. During this second half the narrative becomes bogged down in repetitive and overlong accounts of Native Americans and settlers dealing with smallpox during the fur trade. Unfortunately, the book never really recovers, losing momentum long before the epilogue rolls around.

Yet Pox Americana’s shortcomings never quite derail the experience. Despite the uneven structure and pacing of the narrative, the sheer amount of quality historical content makes Pox Americana a unique and worthwhile read for anyone remotely interested in learning how one disease helped define the course of a burgeoning country.

-Andrew Plan

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