Compared with other colors going on in your body, yellow is the least of your worries. Red is oozing from your gums and other places there’s no need to mention here. Your tongue may turn black, matching the “black coffee ground fluid” that is accumulating in your stomach and is, like the gums business, made up of your own hemorrhaged blood. Yellow fever, the protagonist of Crosby’s frequently engrossing first book, “American Plague,” is almost as deadly a virus as ebola.
Few Americans realize that yellow fever was not always a disease of the faraway tropics. In 1878, an outbreak of yellow fever — the virus carried to the United States in mosquitoes from Africa — killed 20,000 people in the Mississippi Valley. Crosby, a journalist, profiles the outbreak as it rips through Memphis, the city hardest hit. She vividly evokes the Faulkner-meets-“Dawn of the Dead” horrors of that summer, as in this passage that follows a nun named Constance:
“Serpentine watermelon vines grew wildly around the homes in the neighborhood, and abandoned cats and dogs howled for lost owners. A pretty young girl in mourning led her into the house. Dust floated, effulgent, in the shafts of afternoon light, and the air was heavy as steam. One corpse lay on the sofa, another one on the bed, their skin yellow and tongues black. A tall young man, nearly naked, was also in the bed, delirious, rocking back and forth. His eyes sank deep into his cheekbones ringed by bruised half moons. Outside the window, Constance heard a crowd gathering, presumably to loot the house once all were dead. Constance ran into the yard and shouted at them to leave, warned them of the plague. They scattered like insects in the sunlight.”
Many of the elements of this tale are depressingly familiar. Though the death toll in Memphis alone surpassed that of the Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake and the Johnstown flood combined, President Rutherford B. Hayes was dismissive, calling pleas for help “greatly exaggerated.” Tell me if this rings a bell: “Federal response had been slow. In the South, the dead were still rotting unburied in cities and farmlands. Thousands of people had been displaced and collected in camps, waiting for food and supplies.”
The arrogance and ignorance of those in power is a recurring theme in “American Plague.” Decades before Walter Reed managed to convince the medical establishment that mosquitoes were the vector for yellow fever, a Cuban physician named Carlos Finlay had all but proved it. Lacking connections in the United States and cursed by a debilitating stutter, Finlay was waved away as a “crank” by everyone but Reed and the other members of the Yellow Fever Commission. When Reed pushed for funding to follow up on Finlay’s mosquito theory, Surgeon General George Sternberg initially rebuffed him, calling it “a useless investigation.” Incredibly, years later, Sternberg would try to take the credit for Finlay and Reed’s discovery. Talk about unpolished brass.
“American Plague” is not as swift or dramatic as the outbreaks it profiles. The story line through the first half of the book is patchy, jumping from Memphis to Cuba to the Spanish-American War, pausing often to provide the background of one or another minor character. The names come at you like mosquitoes in a sultry Tennessee dusk: an irritating swarm, too many to keep track of. There’s no one to hook arms with and march through the…