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The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in San Francisco 

We especially like the scenes from everyday life at the beginning of the last century

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
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By Marilyn Chase

Random House (2003), $25.95

Author Marilyn Chase's thesis seems to be "Epidemics are bad, but some doctors are good," a position far too flimsy for a serious book on the bubonic plague in our fair city. The writer is a San Francisco resident, and it shows: Her best moments are research-heavy conjectures on everyday life at the beginning of the last century, and she has a citizen's fascination with the disgusting moments following the '06 earthquake. We all love that stuff. But her lionization of Dr. Rupert Blue is just boring most of the time. The Barbary Plague would have done better to highlight the fact that Blue's major contribution to public health was his anti-racist attitude. In the first few years of the last century, the majority of the white community in California was absolutely, viciously racist -- and proud of it -- a situation aptly chronicled here. One of the many consequences of that attitude was the blaming of the Chinese community for the outbreak of the plague in San Francisco. Chase does make the point that Blue's success came from careful science unhindered by political hysteria, but she doesn't make it strongly enough. Also, her writing can be insipid ("In 1907, San Francisco rose Phoenixlike from the rubble"). We'd expect better from someone who works for the New York Times and holds degrees from Stanford and UC Berkeley.

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Hiya Swanhuyser

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