“The young man didn’t feel well. There was a chill, an icy, bone-freezing chill in the middle of a warm summer evening. Then there was a terrible, crushing headache. His back hurt, and spewed streams of black vomit with digested clots of blood across the pillow…”
“Ewe, Mrs. Sanchez! That’s disgusting; I don’t want to read anymore.” “Why do we have to read this book?” “I don’t like this book at all” and I like it!” These were just some of the reactions that the students had to the introductory pages of the core novel,
The Secret of the Yellow Death: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing
. At first, the students were interested in the start of the novel because of its use of descriptive language and interesting details about the young patients of Yellow Fever, but then the reactions started to change, and I was not sure why.
The Secret of the Yellow Death
is a historical, scientific, and informational text that offers plenty of opportunities for the students to think analytically about Yellow Fever. The book hones in on the cause, the transmission, and the treatment of the disease.
The Secret of Yellow Death
follows the story of five scientists who go to Cuba and begin their crusade to find the cause and cure for Yellow Fever. The story follows the lives of Dr. Walter Reed, Dr. James Carroll, Dr. Jesse Lazear, Dr. Aristides Agramonte, and Dr. Carlos Finlay. These characters carry the narrative of the book, and move the plot toward its climactic ending. The book offers great illustrations to describe what the characters, medical equipment, and bacterium looked like in the 1900’s as well as they lent themselves to great discussions about the equipment used during that particular time period. Overall, the structure of the book was laid out well; the book had a strong introduction, and the vocabulary signaled higher-order thinking about the context of the words in relationship to the content of the novel. The book’s dramatic chapter titles enticed the students and enabled them to think more broadly about the chapter’s content.
The book is part of the Plugged-In to nonfiction series, by Janet Allen
. It is one of two nonfiction core titles that is introduced during the year. The curriculum guide for this book includes several vocabulary word study handouts, poetry, and resources that the teachers may use to accompany this book. All the non-fiction materials presented are great to use to strengthen the student’s background on the topic of yellow fever. The book also has an audio component, in which, the students are able to listen and follow along with the narrator of the story. The audio component provides the students with a chance to build both their fluency and their vocabulary skills. The difficult vocabulary words are pronounced for the students and explained further in the text; which helps the struggling readers decode the words easily. There are fiction and nonfiction Science connections as well as supports to match the text to the individual reader through photographs, primary and secondary sources, historical narrative, and “edgy content about death and disease.” The strengths of the book rely on its historical content, but this was not enough to sell the book to the students. They were interested in learning more about the time period other than the historical background of the yellow fever disease.
Even though the book offers multiple attempts to discuss, analyze, and examine the patients, the bacterium, and the scientists, the students could not relate to the characters, their lives, or the time period. Several weaknesses included the historical background of the Spanish American War, although the book touches upon it, it really doesn’t offer the students much information as to why Americans were involved in the conflict and its relationship to yellow fever. Another weakness had to do with the roles of men and women in this particular time period. Again, the book mentions the wives of the scientists, but it does not offer any opportunity to explore the feelings, or interactions of the female role. Lastly, the book does not touch upon Germ theory, or the importance of the discovery of germ theory, and its necessary role that it played in diagnosing diseases. The students wished that the book would have offered these notions in order to add more excitement for the topic at hand. Based on these discussions with the students, the weaknesses of the book drive the reason for the unit. The unit will offer knowledge on these ideas through classroom activities that can be showcased through technology, social media, visual arts, or informational brochures.