Author: The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Michael G. Vann & Liz Clarke (illustrator); Plagues: Falynn Koch
Pages: 288 and 122 pages
Publish Date: 2019 and 2017
Publisher: Oxford University Press and :01 First Second, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press
Catalog ID: ISBN 9780190602697 (The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt) and 9781626727526 (Plagues)
By Kevin Wolf
In our current days of social distancing, worries, and sickness or deaths from COVID-19, the past can be instructive, but how much do we learn from history? Our memories seem to be short and society often has to reinvent what we once learned. A good place to start relearning about pandemics is two excellent books; one about a specific plague in a specific location and the other a more general learning tool. In The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Rat Hunt), Michael G. Vann and Liz Clarke (illustrator) use the killing of hundreds of thousands of rats in Hanoi as part of the history of the Third Plague and French colonialism (1883-1954) in Vietnam where “colonial racism saturates every aspect of this story.” (page 8) There’s an amazing amount of well-documented history in Rat Hunt and the reader can readily see the Vietnamese resentments build against the French colonialists. The work does a great job covering colonialism, exploitation, hypocrisy, urbanization, building rebellion among the exploited, and public health policy against the Bubonic Plague. Michael G. Vann is Professor of History at Sacramento State University (Sac State) and host at New Books in History. To get additional understanding of plagues, I turned to Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield (Plagues) by Falynn Koch. I highly recommend the well-documented Rat Hunt for the wonderful graphic portion alone. But that work has more text than graphic portion; and that text supports and extends the graphic story. I also highly recommend Plagues for a quick lesson, especially of bacterial and viral plagues. Both books are teaching tools with Rat Hunt further providing a mini-lesson on being or becoming an historian. Rat Hunt is partly the story of the Third Plague (1894-1922; time span varies depending on the source). The “three plagues” were so named for three cross continental pandemics of the Bubonic Plague. The First was the Justinian Plague; and the second was the Black Death Plague. See the chart later in this book review for more information about various plagues, time spans and number of deaths.
When I was in high school, I read my parents’ copy of the classic: Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif (© 1926, I don’t recall the edition). Microbe Hunters provided a history of the early days of finding microbes and the creation of Germ Theory which was the actual explanation of how diseases entered the body and replaced the theory of Spontaneous Generation. One of those early microbe hunters was the Dutch Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) who invented the best microscope—with 200 times enlarging—at that time. After looking at blood, sperm, water from various sources, and much more, he wonderfully named some of what he saw under his microscope “animalcules” or “wee beasties” (in translation). He hired an illustrator since he couldn’t draw realistically (https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/leeuwenhoek.html May 4, 2020) and submitted these to The Royal Society of London. This worthwhile book on microbial hunting has been published in many editions and can be found at used books websites (e.g. https://www.abebooks.com/).
Rat Hunt is part of the Oxford University Press’ Graphic History series. About 40 percent—for Rat Hunt it’s 122 of 288 pages—of each work in the Series is a non-fiction graphic work while the rest provides textual and visual sources to support the graphic work. Other books in the Graphic History series include: Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputation of 1263—debate requested by King James I (1195-1270) of Aragon about the Messiah in Judaism and Christianity between Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides, 1194-1270), and Paul a Dominican Friar—by Nina Caputo and Liz Clarke (illustrator); Abina and the Important Men—Abina was a West African woman who went to court in 1876 to stop her enslavement—by Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke (illustrator); and six others, so far. Plagues is part of the Science Comics series from the publisher First Second (an imprint of Roaring Brook Press). So far, there are about twenty non-fiction books in the Science Comics series. Falynn Koch has written and drawn one other book in the series called Bats: Learning to Fly. Plagues, like all books in Science Comics is meant for ages 9-12, but all ages can learn a lot from this series.
Some History of French Hanoi
Rat Hunt begins February 1902. Paul Doumer, Governor General of French Indochina leaves its capital, Hanoi, and returns to France. He had borrowed money and taxed the indigenous Vietnamese to create a world exposition, but there was an unnoticed enemy scurrying about. The image of him leaving Hanoi has a small rat straddling the narration. Hanoi was made into an Asian Paris for the French colonialists. “Before the French seized Hanoi in 1882, the city was composed of over thirty short streets or hang, each devoted to a specific craft or trade … and each with a gate at either end to be closed at night or in times of trouble;” (13) this area became the Old Quarter. “In French eyes Hanoi was backwards and chaotic, not really a city but a collection of dirty villages.” (13) The French Quarter was built up from land seized by the first French Administrator, Paul Bert, and his military garrison. Paul Bert arrived in 1886—his research on pressure on the human body made him known for diving and aviation medicine. There was a memorial statue of Bert holding the French flag with a Vietnamese man sitting on the ground below him and Bert’s hand just above; the French view this as paternalistically civilizing, while the Vietnamese see it as colonial suppression. The French banned the word “Vietnam” and called those already living there “Annamite” (a derogatory term for “pacified southern”). The French claimed all the changes they imposed were for the locals’ benefit. “After several months of work rebuilding Hanoi, Paul Bert (like thousands of other Europeans in southeast Asia) died of dysentery in November, 1886.” (17)
Soon after Doumer leaves and before the Hanoi Exposition is scheduled to start in late 1902, some cases of Bubonic Plague occur. The science wasn’t strong at that time, and many thought the Vietnamese and their living conditions was the cause. Ironically, the French imposed those living conditions on the Vietnamese. But they weren’t the cause. One Frenchman, a founder of Germ Theory, Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943, Swiss-born French citizen) found the bacillus (posthumously renamed to Yersinia Pestis in 1971) that caused Bubonic Plague. Doumer, perhaps his best decision, put Yersin in charge of Hanoi’s new medical school and public health policy. Yersin had “developed an anti-plague serum at the Institut Pasteur in Paris and field-tested it at his research facility …” (82) He even helped create Ko-Ca (short for Kola-Cannelle) “a cocaine-based beverage made with coca leaves grown on his land in Southern Vietnam …” which fueled his active mind. (82). Just after Doumer left, the Bubonic Plague started up in the white French Quarter. The claim was it started with some cloth from China. Yersin knew rats were the plagues vectors (i.e., carriers) so he suggested they kill all the rats! The heart of the graphic story is about how effectively or ineffectively their just created health policy to curtail the spread of this plague worked. The Bubonic Plague also killed the rats that carried it.
The Vietnamese didn’t spread the disease; the French did in two ways: they had a sophisticated underground sanitation system built to pipe water and sewage, which became home to hundreds of thousands of grey rats. And these grey rats, which carried the disease and passed the Bubonic bacteria from rat to human via fleas, were brought to this region by the Europeans on their ships. The Bubonic Plague wasn’t spread between humans, but needed the rat’s fleas to spread it to others. The Bubonic Plague wrongly spread racism; including against Chinese in Hawaii where the disease spread leading to a neighborhood being burned down & thousands of homeless Chinese. Port cities were especially vulnerable because the rats hitched rides throughout the shipping world, including San Francisco. Doumer feared the plague outbreak would cause the Hanoi Expo to be called off, so he passed anti-plague laws which closed off some Chinese provinces and ports; “he gave sanitary police expanded powers to inspect goods and people … from suspicious areas. Europeans were asked a few questions, but Chinese received invasive physical inspections, faced possible quarantines, and could have their cargoes of grain or cloth seized.“ (76) They went to the Old Quarters and anyone dying there was cremated, huts and all their goods were burned—even neighbors huts …anything that was deemed unhealthy by the French. There’s a fascinating twist to “The Great Rat Hunt” by the Vietnamese … while the French didn’t want to sully their hands with rat killing. Other health measures included quarantining some Vietnamese; disinfecting with lime; removing bedding; Yersin mandated vaccinations to many Vietnamese as “test animals;” the Vietnamese knew they hadn’t had this disease before the French arrived. With the white population not required to be vaccinated; and the vaccine’s effectiveness was suspect, leaving no effective treatment for Cholera or the Bubonic Plague at that time.
Plagues explains the types of plagues (endemic: local, epidemic: spreads over country or continent, and pandemic: spreads to two or more continents); the differences between bacterial, viral, protozoan, and fungal infections and their shapes; our immune system’s white blood cells (neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils, monocytes, and most importantly lymphocytes: B-cells and T-cells); how plagues spread; and examples of plagues (bacterial: Lyme disease, E. Coli, strep throat, Cholera, Bubonic; and viral: flu, Yellow Fever, measles, polio ). Plagues might spread by air, water or vectors; and vectors are some carrier that houses the plague which could be passed to a human. Again, the Bubonic Plague has rats and their fleas as their vector; the Bubonic bacteria is passed between rats and to humans by the fleas. Malaria is spread by the vector mosquitos, who are unaffected by the malaria. Bacterial infections are often treated with anti-biotics, while viral infection cures might include one’s own immune system building up anti-bodies, a vaccine from weakened or dead viruses or another source, or quarantine until the viral infection ends. One might still be a carrier after symptoms have subsided or subject to reinfection. And some plagues have no cure … yet. Bubonic Plague is now treated with anti-biotics, but there were no anti-biotics at the time of Rat Hunt—not until Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) found penicillin in 1928 (Plagues page 60).
There is a lot more to Rat Hunt than just battling the Bubonic Plague in Hanoi. For example, this work gives the history of how and why Hanoi became part of a French colony in Indochina … eventually leading to the US’s tragic war in Vietnam. Some random historical information is provided below.
Most of the graphic work takes place in 1902. Primary sources provided in Rat Hunt show, as is typical, different “facts.” For example, Alfred Cunningham—a primary source in The French in Tonkin and South China from the Hong Kong Daily Press, 1902—wrote “The population of Hanoi is 160,000, of whom 1,500 are Europeans [primarily French], exclusive of the large [military] garrison, and 4,000 Chinese.” While a Government General report from 1905 indicated there were “roughly 3,000 Europeans, 2,150 Chinese, 60 Japanese, 50 Indians, and 100,000 Annamites.”
Hanoi’s Maison Centrale (the French prison) imprisoned Vietnamese and became “Hanoi Hilton” during the US’ Vietnam War, “where POWs such as John McCain were held for years …“ (62) Ironically, the French report about imprisoning Vietnamese—who had no rights, no power, lived subsistently under virtual slave conditions as forced labor wearing bamboo collars—in Maison Centrale has it’s letterhead “République Française: Liberté—Ĕgalité—Fraternité” (Republic of France: Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood, the French motto after their 1791 revolution).
After the Graphic History the remaining parts of Rat Hunt show Primary Sources (including: individual’s perspectives from diaries, newspaper articles, postcards, government documents, transcribed interviews, letters, etc.; section separators include: The Third Plague Pandemic, and Voices of Resistance; and discussion of the reliability of information gathered); Historical Context (including: Western Industrial Capitalism; Vietnamese Resistance; and The Third Bubonic Plague Pandemic, 1855-1959), Making The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt, and The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt in the Classroom (Discussion Questions; Essay Topics; Timeline of Events; and Further Resources). Professor Vann did his own translations of French materials and others translated Vietnamese writings; for example he found a poem from 1897 about opium (“And that opium kills the misery” (131))
Another fascinating source was the Vietnamese community sending letters of protest to the French Governor General about the conditions that the Vietnamese have to live and work under, not being allowed to follow their death ceremonies, maltreatment of neighbors of plague victims; while the French plague victims are never treated in the same manner. Vietnamese leaders wrote to the Governor General in part: “…There is the doctor who examines the ill and the coolies [derogatory term for Vietnamese and Chinese] who carry the coffins. How is it that the germs do not multiply on the person of the doctor himself, nor on that of the coolies? … In the Annamite custom, after a person dies of an illness, the members of the household hasten to burn the bed on which the body has lain; they must also wash and thoroughly clean the room occupied by the deceased, and also heat the room. But they do not feel it necessary to burn their own belongings, as the police is now doing. …” [Rat Hunt source: Citizens of Hanoi to Governor General, Centre des Archives Section d’Outre-Mer, GGI 6739; dated March 16, 1906. Translated by Briana S.E. Vann, page 185]. The French public health administrators would quarantine the Vietnamese plague victims, their families, and their neighbors but not the French plague victims. The Vietnamese were heavily taxed with almost no governmental representation; and the two Vietnamese city council representatives had no voting rights.
There were many interesting visuals in Rat Hunt provided by Liz Clarke; including at the end of the prologue showing Professor Vann narrating while a colonial period image is all around him. (8) The Colonial imagery then continues into chapter one: A Tail of Two Cities. The graphic work is realistically drawn with very nice coloration and shadowing. Frenchmen wear white with hats or pith helmets while the Frenchwomen and Vietnamese wear colorful clothes. Male city council members wear grey suits. Most of the characters go unnamed.
The book had me searching for rats in each large scene like the game to find the mouse in every color illustration of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. For example, there are two rats in foreground as part of the huge sendoff for Governor General Paul Doumer. (28) The French speak with a light blue border on word balloons while the Vietnamese speak with a red word balloon border; the colors are to signify the different languages. There are scenes where the French and Vietnamese are talking past each other though I suspect that the Vietnamese often understand the colonialists and not vice versa. When discussing the sewer system and sanitation it’s a nice touch that the panel borders are piping.
The narrator is Professor Vann who appears in panel periodically giving a lecture to one of his classes at Sac State. He narrates, “Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables uses the Parisian sewers as a metaphor for urban modernity.” (24) The author doesn’t take himself too seriously by sometimes showing students listening to one of his lectures and making a snide remark to a fellow student. (42) As the work progresses the students interest is piqued with more discussions between the students and Professor Vann on the French exploiting the Vietnamese.
Rat Hunt shows the passage of time in interesting ways; including having panel borders topped with a calendar day and the character’s activities shown in the rest of the panel; or showing dates with the records of rats killed that day and bounty paid.
Most of the book is in color with some pages at the end of the last chapter in black and white art as it gets closer to the Vietnamese attaining their own independence with the rise of revolutionaries and small skirmishes against the colonialists with its leader changing his name several times eventually settling on Ho Chi Minh.
Plagues has more of a cartoony style with actual Bubonic Plague and Yellow Fever microbes being characters in their (oversized) microbial and viral forms, respectively, “living” in a simulator with the author teaching them about plagues.
There are some similarities between the two books. Both have their respective book narrated by their author. Professor Vann is shown teaching his college students about the events of the Rat Hunt; while Ms. Koch is teaching the Yellow Fever virus and Bubonic Plague bacteria about plagues; and both are indirectly teaching their readers. The biggest difference between Rat Hunt and Plagues is that the former discusses an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in one location (Hanoi), attempted treatments, and its colonial history with racial segregation and oppression; while the latter provides information about various plagues, causes, and possible cures. I highly recommend both these books.