When I was young, I spent several days inside a Viking privy in York, England. From an archaeological point of view it was fascinating--the preservation was wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that the privy smelled like it had been used yesterday, and intact turds were recovered (one of which ended up on display in the Jorvik Viking Center. Fascinating stuff, that poop--you can learn a lot from it!
Poop Happened! A History of the World from the Bottom Up, by Sarah Albee, takes poop and runs with it. It is a chronological compendium of the history of defecation in Europe (mainly England) and the USA, providing not only poop-specific facts (I didn't know Queen Elizabeth I travelled with a port-a-potty), but tying them to the larger social history in an extremely compelling way (poop and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, for instance). It's an excellent introduction to social history--the sort that eschews dates and names in favor of trends and interconnections. It makes the point that to understand the workings of a society, and the trajectory of its history, understanding daily life is important, and interesting, too!
Poop Happens! is chock full of extremely interesting details, arranged in short sections of just a few paragraphs that flow nicely into one another. Albee does an excellent job, I thought, packing a lot of information into an accessible format, and this accessibility is further enhanced by the copious illustrations, both historic images and cartoons.
The obvious reader for this book would be the middle-grade kid, but I think its appeal, and its utility, goes beyond this demographic. For instance, many people have noticed that few fictional characters ever have to poop. But for any writer of fantasy or historical fiction who wants to create a world that is really three-dimensional, this book, with its quirky tidbits and exposé of the dark underparts of life, might be just the thing...
My main disappointment is with the European focus of the book--the subtitle is misleading, as "world" implies a global perspective, and it's annoying (and just plain wrong) when it turns out to be short for "the European world." There are a few pages devoted to toilets beyond Europe, but these were so sparse that they felt like token nods. And the indigenous cultures of North and South America are not included. What were the sanitation arrangements, for instance, at Machu Picchu? At Teotihuacan?
Sarah Albee herself apologizes for this problem in the introduction, explaining that she was limited by lack of primary sources available in English. But why couldn't they have changed the subtitle to reflect this? And perhaps she could have added more non-Western poop if she had spent more time talking to archaeologists--we are, after all, able to find toilets even when there are no written records of them.
Still, a fascinating and very readable book with lots of kid appeal.
Other reviews at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy, and Welcome to my Tweendom.
Non-fiction Monday is hosted today by Bookends.
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)