December 15, 2005


Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History. By Bryn Barnard. Crown. $17.95.

Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents. By Mark Podwal. Doubleday. $15.95.

     In this season of supposed peace on Earth, there are, as in all such seasons, worries as well as good cheer abounding.  Young readers interested in getting some perspective on news stories of today will be helped – and potentially uplifted – by reading these two books.

     There is actually more information than uplift in Outbreak, but it can certainly help put worries about a bird-flu pandemic in perspective.  This is the story of widespread disease outbreaks that caused major changes in civilization – such as the Black Death, which sounded the funeral knell not only for millions of people but also for the feudal system under which Europe had until then been governed.  Bryn Barnard, whose previous book looked at disasters of another sort (it was called Dangerous Planet: Natural Disasters That Changed History), manages as much bright writing as possible on a super-serious subject: one section of a chapter, for instance, is called “Lifestyles of the Small and Deadly.”  In addition to the Black Death, Barnard discusses smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis and influenza (the flu in all its forms).  To the extent possible, he shows positive elements resulting from disease outbreaks, trying to indicate that the changes in history caused by disease involved more than the deaths of millions of people.   Yellow fever, he suggests, helped end slavery, while tuberculosis – once thought to be a sign of wistfulness, lovesickness and artistic temperament – lost its romantic status after scientists isolated the bacterium that causes it and discovered that careful attention to hygiene could prevent the disease.  Barnard’s conclusion about the simultaneous evolution of human beings and the germs that sicken us makes the current worries about a possible worldwide outbreak of bird flu very clear indeed.

     Jerusalem Sky clarifies other matters.  Mark Podwal – a clinical associate professor of medicine as well as an author and illustrator – uses this book to explain the centrality of Jerusalem to the spiritual life of three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Starting with the legend that Jerusalem’s sky is unique because it “has a hole in it, made by a jewel that fell from God’s throne,” Podwal explains the city’s importance to the three great monotheistic religions.  Jews believe a full moon shone over Jerusalem for seven years as King Solomon built the Temple; Christians believe a star in the Jerusalem sky heralded the birth of Jesus; Muslims believe “midnight glowed like day” when Muhammad rode through the sky on a flying horse on his way to heaven.  The legends are far more uplifting than the modern reality of a city over which fighting is almost constant.  Podwal notes this fact of life, but places it in the context of people seeking peace through their prayers “all addressed to one God.”  It is a fitting, if not entirely realistic, way to view the unending conflicts over a city considered holy by so many millions of people.

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