Monday, November 26, 2012

"Fever Season" by Jeanette Keith (2012)

Science, religion and an epidemic outbreak combine to fuel this story of the Yellow Fever outbreak in Memphis in the summer of 1878. Just as they always have, science and religion were  both battling one another in the 19th century; only this time they were both fighting as one; to save the life of their city.

Beginning with a background on the history of Memphis, centering mostly on the days leading up to; and including the Civil War; the author paints a picture of the town, and its inhabitants on the Mississippi River. What little was known about the disease is discussed, and a history of prior epidemics; including the 1873 Smallpox/Yellow Fever outbreak; give the reader a sense of being “in the moment”, armed with limited knowledge about the disease and how it spreads. This part of the book has definite applications today, when some segments of society refuse inoculations for diseases which have been under control for decades; or more; in obedience to a religious or tribal doctrine. They are unwittingly turning back the clock to a time when annual outbreaks of various epidemics killed thousands at a time.

In the 1873 outbreak, the town’s entire leadership fled, leaving the populace to fend for themselves. But, in the 1878 outbreak, some remained. They established committees to administer aid to the sick and dying; enlisted donations of food from Washington, as well as the surrounding states; even had former slaves working side by side with whites, which was unheard of at the time. There is no enemy as potent as yellow fever to make people forget their superficial differences, at least for a while.
These local leaders found themselves in a quandary; one which is still applicable today; most, if not all, of the leaders were former Confederates who believed in limited government, state’s rights, and above all else; the Constitution, which made no reference to supplying aid to states in time of crisis. Now, they needed, and were glad to receive this aid from their former enemies. I can’t help but wonder what they didn’t understand about the phrase “to promote the general welfare…” in the preamble to the Constitution.

There were rampant burglaries committed during this time. Some residents arrived home; after the outbreak had subsided; only to find the corpse of a dead burglar lying in the house, a victim of yellow fever, as well as greed.
But, at the same time as these few crimes were being committed, Nuns worked alongside of prostitutes as Memphians put religion, class and even racial differences to the side as they battled the advance of the disease. The scarcity of food was the real danger to civil order. In the Black and Irish quarters; where people felt they were being shortchanged; a petition was drawn up and posted, warning Memphians that “...we can’t starve and don’t intend to do so…if something is not done…. We shall take the law into our own hands.” The food was distributed equally and no mob violence was necessary.

In spite of malicious reports; all untrue; of African-Americans raping sick and dying women, no race riot occurred. People were simply too busy staying alive and helping one another to engage in such trivialities. As a matter of fact, during the entire outbreak, the streets were patrolled by Negro troops and even deputies. And so much help poured in from the Northern states; which only 13 years previous had been the enemy; that many Memphians of that generation would never refer to a Northerner by the derogatory term “Yankee” again.
Even people not acclimated to the fever came to Memphis to help. A male physician, Dr. Besancny, traveled to Memphis and came to the aid of one woman, Miss D.P. Rutter, and after her health was restored he took ill, and she nursed him. A month later they were married, with no doubt that their “ties that Bind” were extra strong due to the nature of their courtship.

There were many and varied reactions to the outbreak, with both heroes and villains enough to fill several books. The author has chosen the finest examples of both, with an emphasis on what we can all do to help one another in times of crisis. This was a time when Protestant and Catholic were bitterly divided, but the outbreak of the fever called upon all of the different religious sects to act as one to defeat a common enemy. In the Jewish community there had been 3,000 people at the onset of the disease. On Rosh Hashanah in 1878, there were only 18 people at services held jointly by the Orthodox and Reform Congregations.

J.M. Keating, editor of the Memphis Appeal, stayed in the stricken city for the duration, keeping lines of communication open and acting on all of the necessary committees required in keeping order and providing whatever means available to alleviate the suffering. He is truly one of the heroes in this story, and shines as a beacon of what the press; and its attendant power; can accomplish when in the hands of principled persons.
There are many stories in our history which illuminate the dark side of human nature. What a pleasure to read a book about a time and place, where; challenged by the most virulent of opponents; people stood together, helped one another as best they could, and even learned from that experience. In the face of recent events, both here and abroad, Ms. Keith has given us a glimpse of man’s “better angels.”

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