Sunday, 20 February 2011

Penguin no. 1394: The Plague and I
by Betty MacDonald

"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.


  1. Sounds interesting will look out for this. Have recently discovered your blog very enjoyable as I also collect old penguins but I dont have that many yet.

  2. Thank you for your comment Rachel. Good luck with your collecting. You have the advantage over me because you are in the UK; Penguins are becoming much harder to find here in Australia. I am old enough to remember when they were easy to find and I regret that I didn't buy many more of them then.

  3. This sounds really fascinating. I think you're right about us forgetting how hard life could be. Tuberculosis seems so old fashioned now, but it is sobering to be reminded of how fatal and debilitating it was.

  4. Just found this post through a Google search for the book title. My paternal Grandma Ruth was in and out of Firlands throughout her adult life and died there of TB in the late 50's. She was a lovely, cheerful woman from what I was told - maybe she was Betty's roommate! As a native of the Pacific Northwest, I've always loved Betty's books. I look forward to reading this one and seeing a glimpse of what my Grandma's life was like.

  5. Hi Annette,

    It is a while since I read this one, but the memory that remains is of my complete lack of awareness of just how serious this disease was. I am sure with a close family connection you will find this book fascinating.

  6. Betty MacDonald has so many fans all over the world.

  7. Another Penguin in your range, The Rack by A.E.Ellis, is set in a post-WWII sanatoium in Switzerland.

  8. Would second the rcommendation of 'The Rack', an utterly outstanding novel that I would recommend to anyone. Well worth seeking out.

  9. I just read your review on LibraryThing, after finding a hardcover with dust jacket in a thrift store of The Plague and I. How cool that you collect old Penguins!!! How far along are you now? (When you wrote this review in 2011, you still needed 1000 of them)



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