November’s book club selection was a little something old, a little something new. You see, our book club was originally founded to explore NYRB’s world lit catalog, and we returned to our roots this month with an NYRB selection. The new part is that it was a nonfiction title, something we haven’t often visited, and it was a nice change of pace.
The book in question is S. Josephine Baker’s memoir Fighting for Life. “Who is S. Josephine Baker?” you may ask. No, it is not the famous French dancer of the 1920s… this Josephine isn’t often known by name (at least in most communities) but you’ve certainly heard of the things she’s done. Seeing as how she is almost single-handedly responsible for revolutionizing infant healthcare into what we accept today as common sense… yeah, she’s a pretty important lady!
A bit of a history lesson: New York at the turn of the century was home to the most densely populated, most poverty-stricken neighborhood, the Lower East Side. This area was mostly populated by immigrant communities recently arrived, and folks were stuffed to the gills in old tenement housing. It was dirty and hot and stuffy and just a breeding ground for germs. It was no surprise the city, and this area in particular, had an extremely high infant mortality rate.
This is where our Dr. Baker comes in. Family tragedy forced her into a profession rather than a marriage like most women of the early twentieth century, and medicine was the route she chose. At a time when healthcare was provided at the time of an illness, Dr. Baker championed preventative care to prevent illness from happening in the first place. Name a norm of modern infant care, and she probably started the trend. From school nurses to milk stations to healthy infant attire, Dr. Baker approached medicine on a problem-solving basis.
If you want to look at a successful PR campaign, just look at all of her work. When I say she problem-solved, I mean she really approached an issue from every angle. She got everyone involved in preventative care on a level each group could understand—doctors, nurses, politicians, parents, even the children themselves. Much of Dr. Baker’s career was an uphill battle—just look at who she was and the times in which she lived. She fought for respect from her male colleagues, for resources and funding. I’m sure it wasn’t easy as she lived it, but my takeaway from her memoirs was that she was the right person in the right place at the right time. These memoirs are written as recollections by the author in the late 1930s, a good twenty plus years after the start of her health revolution. Perhaps this is the reason her experiences all sounded so easy, like things just fell into place. Certainly her day to day must’ve been more chaotic than it comes across in her writing!
As a narrator, she’s entirely unsympathetic. I don’t mean she sounds insensitive; she just never discusses her experiences on a personal level, rather as a puzzle that she had to solve. She was clearly a driven, effective woman that let her work speak for itself. Fighting for Life is a piece about her work, not about her personal life, and reading this, one would almost assume she didn’t have one. But surely that can’t be true–small anecdotes reveal a witty, outspoken woman. As we decided in book club, it sure would be interesting to read a biography on her that included more than just her professional life; I have a feeling she was a real character. Overall, her story is fascinating when you realize the influence she’s had. Like she says, it’s just common sense.