"Of course the major irritation of all was my room mate, who was so damned happy all the time, so well adjusted. She loved the institution and the institution loved her. She loved all the nurses and all the nurses loved her. She loved all the other patients and all the other patients, but one, loved her. That one used to lie awake in the long dark cold winter nights and listen hopefully for her breathing to stop."
The plague of the title is tuberculosis, and it caused the deaths of George Orwell, Keats, Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Louis Stevenson and many, many others. Betty MacDonald contracted it after being exposed to an infected co-worker, and spent 9 months in a sanatorium, outside Seattle, recovering. This book is a record of that experience. The tone is light-hearted and humorous; it was easy and enjoyable to read.
Betty MacDonald contracted tuberculosis around 1937, and it doesn't appear that it was particularly uncommon at the time. It was contagious, and potentially fatal, and so her life had to stop. She left her children in her mother's care, gave up her job, and entered the sanatorium, with no idea of how long it would be until she could leave. Some patients remained there for many years, and no one had left in less than 12 months.
The initial treatment was complete bed rest. No talking, laughing, singing, reading, writing, or walking for weeks or months, and these things begrudgingly re-introduced only if the patient submitted and began to improve. And the patients were treated like children: given no information about their progress, or upcoming treatments, even on the day they were due; expected to be submissive, compliant and endlessly grateful. Tuberculosis could cause holes in the lungs, and could spread to other organs and into bones. A number of unpleasant surgical treatments were available.
Betty MacDonald describes in detail the depressing sanatorium routine, the unpleasantness of the nurses, the pointlessness of the occupational therapy, and the disgusting habits of some of the other patients. She recognises how self-centred and uninterested in the outside world sanatorium patients become. But these aspects are balanced against delightful descriptions of her entertaining family and some of her room mates, particularly the tall Japanese girl Kimi, and femme fatales Pixie and Delores. How fascinating to find that a number of these people go onto be successful in their own rights, including her sisters Mary and Alison, and Kimi who was actually Monica Sone.
I was happy to find that such a firsthand account of the experience existed. I hadn't known it was like that. Reading this book reinforced the idea of how quickly knowledge disappears. A vaccine against tuberculosis is found, the disease ceases to be a widespread threat, and the knowledge of how dangerous and life altering it was fades. It was wonderful to be reminded of how difficult life once was, and how much we take for granted now. She comes across as vibrant and full of life, so it was sad to see that she had died of cancer by the time this Penguin edition was published, before her 50th birthday.