July 2002

Jen Crispin


The Fever Trail by Mark Honigsbaum

The Fever Trail presents a fascinating story that, in my opinion, could have been better written. I was very excited when my review copy arrived in the mail. I had visited the book's website, which was very well done and it left me eager to read the book. The book promises to be the story of Richard Spruce, Charles Ledger, and Sir Clements Markham, three European men who journeyed to South America in attempts to bring back cinchona, the tree which produces quinine, a drug used to treat malaria -- however, the book is about much more than that. It starts with the South American expeditions, then rambles through the effects of malaria on various battles in military history, then finally ends up by talking about the current efforts to develop a malaria vaccine.

The story itself is very interesting, peopled as it is with so many underappreciated heroes risking death in order to save the endangered cinchona tree and deliver a reliable source of quinine to the world. At the time during which most of the book is set, cinchona trees grow only high in the mountains of South America. Malaria, of course, is not so confined, being widespread throughout much of Africa, Europe, and Southern Asia. Once the Europeans arrived in the Americas, they introduced malaria to the Western hemisphere as well. Getting cinchona back to Europe not only meant surviving the mosquito-ridden Amazon (at a time when people didn't know that mosquitoes caused malaria, and so didn't take adequate steps to protect themselves), then the trek up into the Andes, and avoiding head-hunting natives, it also meant currying favor with the local governments, who had often outlawed the export of any cinchona plants or seeds. Wars, fires, and theft also had to be avoided. Then, of course, once the plants and seeds had been collected and put on a boat for export, there was the not at all trivial matter of transporting them across the Atlantic alive. The odds were not good. This is gripping stuff.

However many times Mark Honigsbaum's writing left me dreading picking the book up again. From the very beginning his writing style seemed rather random. He defined words whose meaning anyone with a dictionary could have discovered and that he might only have used once, but then phrases like "tertiary fever," which you can't just look up and which appear throughout the book were never explained. The pacing of the book was all over the place, and the jumps back and forth in time and the sheer number of important players in the book often left me baffled. The unfamiliar geography was also a challenge, and though there were maps at the front of the book, I don't recall them ever being referred to in the text, so they weren't nearly as helpful as they might have been.

Overall, I would not recommend this book to someone just looking for an enjoyable popular science book. If that's all you want, read Carl Sagan, or pick up a copy of And the Band Played On. But if you want to know more about malaria and the colonization of South America (as well as much of the Southern Hemisphere), this book is crammed with diverting tidbits and useful information. I do feel smarter for having read this book, and isn't that what we read non-fiction for?

The Fever Trail by Mark Honigsbaum
Published by Farrar Straus & Girroux
328 Pages