In August 2003, a heat wave in France killed close to 15,000 people, the majority of whom were over 75. Prominent among the dead were a group of victims known as “the forgotten,” people who died alone and whose bodies were never claimed. Known as the “forgotten,” their stories are at the heart of Richard C. Keller‘s fascinating new book Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
Official narratives of the disaster focused narrowly on the problem of the elderly who died alone, seemingly because their families were too busy vacationing to check in or claim their relatives. Yet, as Keller shows, these official narratives were incomplete and often incorrect. Moreover, by focusing so intently on elderly victims, these narratives have shaped subsequent public health initiatives, which have collectively identified the elderly as the most vulnerable population in the event of heat, all the while ignoring other similarly vulnerable groups.
Fatal Isolation pushes past official narratives to provide the first historical treatment of the disaster. By drawing on disaster studies, social theory, ethnography, demography, and sociology, Keller weaves together the August vacation, housing policy, architecture, and debates over the place of the aging in French society. In the process, Fatal Isolation uncovers a much longer, much richer, and much more complex history of the disaster and French society’s own contributions to it.
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