Fever by Mary Beth Keane
(Scribner, 2013, 306 pages)
You’ve surely heard the name “Typhoid Mary,” but you probably don’t know the story behind it. Keane’s book is a fictional recreation of the life of Mary Mallon (AKA Typhoid Mary). An Irish immigrant, Mary lived in New York City where she worked as a cook for numerous respectable families and “lived in sin” with her partner, Alfred Briehof. Sickness was everywhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries so Mary didn’t take much notice when some of the family members she cooked for became sick with fever and died. But just because she wasn’t taking notice didn’t mean someone else wasn’t.
Dr. Soper of the New York Department of Health launched an investigation with Mary Mallon at the center. He was convinced she was spreading Typhoid to individuals through her cooking. He arrested her and had her isolated on North Brother Island, an island north of the city that housed diseased individuals. Mary couldn’t understand how it was possible that she’d been getting people sick when she felt perfectly fine. Regularly examined and forced to offer various bodily samples Mary felt that she was intentionally being left in the dark. When she was finally released it was with the understanding that she would never cook for hire again and that she would agree to regular check-ins at the Department of Health. Cooking was Mary’s life. The other work she tried to perform didn’t give her any sort of satisfaction and eventually she chose to ignore the guidelines she’d agreed to upon her release.
Mary has been identified as the first person in America to be a healthy carrier of Typhoid fever. This novel immediately grabbed me and I finished it in just a few days. Keane’s writing style is accessible and I just wanted to see what would happen – especially since I didn’t know anything about “Typhoid Mary” beyond that name. Keane did a great job depicting life in New York City during Mary’s time there and she made you care about her and understand what it must have been like to be in Mary’s position.
If you enjoy historical fiction, especially set in early 20th century America, and/or just appreciate a well told story I think you’ll enjoy this book.