Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the author of the novel “Old Yeller.” The novel was written by Fred Gipson, not Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. This version has been updated.
By Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
Viking. 275 pp. $25.95
For as long as people are known to have mingled with animals, they have contracted rabies. A potentially fatal disease easily transmitted from animals to humans, it has been an object of fear for much of human history. The disease is scrutinized in “Rabid,” a fascinating cultural history by husband-and-wife team Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy.
The book follows centuries of human interaction with rabies, from ancient Babylon through the 19th century, when one doctor “unequivocally condemn[ed] an indiscriminate attachment to, or imprudent fondling of dogs.” Of course, countless millions of humans ignored his advice and probably always will.
The authors include an interesting discussion of the Fred Gipson novel “Old Yeller,” in which the eponymous dog is put down after being bitten by a rabid wolf. There was talk of letting the dog live in the Disney movie version, but Walt Disney himself said no. One critic called this child abuse, but Wasik and Murphy consider it a necessary ending. “Rabies, frightening though its ravages may be to see up close, has about it the comfort of certainty,” they write. “However much the furious dog was loved, it cannot be saved.”
Today, medical progress has brought rabies under control, and there is even an experimental program underway to exploit a feature of the disease in the fight against other maladies, such as encephalitis. “We have charmed the beast,” the authors write, “mesmerized it, forced it to do our bidding.”