Smallpox and Xenophobia: Background information when reading Frog Music

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Frog Music

by Emma Donoghue

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2015, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Smallpox and Xenophobia

Print Review

Frog Music is set in San Francisco in 1876, during a summer notable not only for its record-setting heat waves but also for its smallpox epidemic, one of many that plagued the United States during the nineteenth century even as efforts were being made to eradicate the disease through vaccination and inoculation. According to Donoghue's afterword, the 1876 epidemic left 482 (of the roughly 200,000 residents) dead, and more than 1,600 infected with the highly infectious and debilitating disease.

Quarantine Poster Donoghue depicts a San Francisco plagued by racism and xenophobia, in which white San Franciscans accused Chinese immigrants of spreading the disease, and in which Chinatown was seen as the epicenter of the plague. An article from the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper in May 1876 seems to address (and attempt to debunk) this prevalent argument: "the common notion, to the effect that the Chinese quarter is a special breeding-place of disease, is not warranted."

Unfortunately, the perceived connection between Chinese immigrants and disease persisted, often with tragic consequences, in San Francisco and elsewhere. An 1880 pamphlet from the Workingmen's party of California, simply titled "Chinatown Declared a Nuisance!" insisted that San Francisco's Chinatown was "rampant with disease." In 1900, San Francisco's Chinatown was entirely quarantined following a suspected case of bubonic plague, and that same year Honolulu's Chinatown was almost entirely destroyed following a fire intentionally set to destroy the plague. In today's Chinatowns, centers of tourism and cultural pride, few traces remain of this dark history of suspicion and Sinophobia.

For more about the Chinese in America and discrimination against them, read our Beyond the Book for Take Me Home and Calling me Home.

Picture of quarantine poster from National Library of Medicine

Article by Norah Piehl

This article was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the February 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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