This is an excellent overview, written for the layperson. Extremely well-researched (once I figured out the endnote section!!) without being ponderous. Kelly's anecdotal, story-telling style--which does take his interpretation a little far beyond the facts (see comments)--is like a spoonful of sugar, which is not to say that he's making the Plague more palatable, but he is bringing energy and momentum into what could have become a truly mind-numbing set of statistics.
A couple of things I really appreciated:
- he devotes the last chapter to debunking the theories of modern Plague Deniers: that the Black Death was not bubonic plague, but anthrax, Ebola, something else. He carefully details then counters the current controversies. Then, he presents new evidence (DNA samples from the teeth of 14th C plague victims compared to those of the third and last plague pandemic in India, which confirm it was the same bacteria that caused both). I've seen synopses of this book where it makes it appear as though this book supports the Plague Deniers' position. It does not.
- yes, he anthropomorphizes the y. pestis
bacteria. He follows it on its journey from its origins to its final destination, likening it to an army, a military campaign, a terrorist attack. This is remarkably effective at 'humanizing' not just the disease, but its effects on individuals and on societies. Most of all, it is an organizing device that provides never-flagging momentum, and helps him avoid repetition and backtracking. I have almost zero tolerance for most non-fiction but here, while there was a little repetition, overall Kelly was able to synethesize a whack o' information without (in my view) becoming too pedantic.
Couple of things to brace yourself for (other than the obvious gruesomeness):
- where he does not have direct evidence, he uses comparisons from later events as proof points. I can give him the benefit of the doubt when he compares 14th C Black Death plague in London to 17th C plague in London. But comparing the effects of Nagasaki/Hiroshima to those of 1347 Italy? The post WWI Lost Generation to 1352 Western Europe? It's a bit of a stretch.
- I sniffed a sexist Anglophile in places. The British response to Plague was portrayed with a lighter hand; their behaviour presented as slightly more heroic. Why introduce Monica, St. Augustine's overbearing mother, along with Churchill's? Some other places too, more egregious. I've blocked them from my memory now.
- he often drops major fact bombs, draws a conclusion, but doesn't tell the whole story. Checking the endnotes, there IS more of a story to tell. The little girl, named Ryke ('wild bird"), who was the sole survivor of a Nordic village found months later by a rescue party. OMG. Can you imagine? Details, I want details.
- typos, typos, typos. Where the hell are the copy editors/proofreaders these days!? I'm available, and my rates are reasonable.