“Mary Beth Keane, named one of the 5 Under 35 by the National Book Foundation, has written a spectacularly bold and intriguing novel about the woman known as “Typhoid Mary,” the first person in America identified as a healthy carrier of Typhoid Fever. On the eve of the twentieth century, Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to make her way in New York City. Brave, headstrong, and dreaming of being a cook, she fought to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic-service ladder. Canny and enterprising, she worked her way to the kitchen, and discovered in herself the true talent of a chef. Sought after by New York aristocracy, and with an independence rare for a woman of the time, she seemed to have achieved the life she’d aimed for when she arrived in Castle Garden. Then one determined “medical engineer” noticed that she left a trail of disease wherever she cooked, and identified her as an “asymptomatic carrier” of Typhoid Fever. With this seemingly preposterous theory, he made Mallon a hunted woman.
The Department of Health sent Mallon to North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910, then released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—proud of her former status and passionate about cooking—the alternatives were abhorrent. She defied the edict.
Bringing early-twentieth-century New York alive – the neighborhoods, the bars, the park carved out of upper Manhattan, the boat traffic, the mansions and sweatshops and emerging skyscrapers – Fever is an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the imagination of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes a fiercely compelling, dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising and unforgettable heroine.”
Summary and Thoughts
Having heard of the disease Typhoid, but possibly because I am not an avid follower of American history, I was astounded to learn that the disease had a face – Mary Mallon – which leads me to that all-important question, do you wash your hands before preparing food?
Born in September 1869, Mary Mallon was the first known person in the United States to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the bacilli associated with Typhoid Fever. This novel, albeit fictional, is based on historical fact, and gives a plausible account focusing mainly on the Mary’s life before her first incarceration until her voluntary re-institutionalisation which continued until her death.
Through her work as a cook for a host of wealthy families, Irish immigrant Mary was arrested in 1907 at the age of forty after being accused of spreading this dangerous disease which then, had a high incidence of mortality and morbidity. Enter Dr George Soper, the sanitary engineer who played a large role in the arrest of Mary. Whilst not much was known about the disease at the turn of the century, Dr Soper played an integral part in researching this disease and while I found his singling out of Mary to be a bit unfair and unjust, which had me seething at times (after all, there were other carriers out there), I guess it was a necessary evil for further research to be carried out, even though not much regard was had to her rights but rather that of the larger community.
On incarceration at North Brother Island, Mary was subjected to sharing quarters with Tuberculosis patients and, coming from South Africa, a country which has an extremely high incidence of TB, I am most surprised that she, too, didn’t contract this debilitating communicable disease which, even by today’s medical standards, is sometimes fatal. She was eventually moved to a little cottage on the island which was built especially for her and, whilst enjoying the solitude of her own quarters, befriends one of the minor characters, the institution’s gardener.
Not forgetting her long-time partner, Alfred, a man who loves her intensely but who is a hopeless drunk frequently adding to his status of unemployment, Mary engages in correspondence to him but the intervals between letters become longer and the writing less. With the Government unjustly enforcing her exile, as well as constantly being hounded to undergo an operation to remove her gall bladder, Mary, quite rightly, begins to feeling victimised and seeks the advice of various lawyers through postal communication, without much success. She finally receives a letter from one who is prepared to take on her case, with no expectation of payment, and so begins a campaign to prove her innocence. After garnering quite a bit of sympathy with the public and as a result of her lawyer’s brilliance and her court appearance, Mary is finally released on condition that she never again cook for anyone.
Of course, with the success in one aspect of her life, there must surely come a price and that price appears to emanate in the form of Alfred, whom I felt to be extremely weak in character. Nonetheless, they did appear to love one another and after not having seen him for many months, they resume their relationship and Mary goes out of her way to support him, even though she sometimes treats him like a child. For reasons which become apparent to the reader in the dialogue, whilst Mary had been incarcerated, Alfred had endeavoured to overcome his dependence on alcohol by beginning a new medical treatment for his disease – a treatment which led to more serious problems and ultimately debilitated, then consumed him. With Mary not bringing in much in the form of earnings as a laundress, and knowing of no other way to counter their dire financial circumstances, she felt there was no other option but to take up her previous profession as a cook. The consequences, however, see Alfred becoming a shell of the man he once was and Mary, after a tragic turn of events, volunteering for re-incarceration at North Brother Island where she lived out the remainder of her life.
There is a distinct air of melancholy throughout the novel amid the vivid descriptions of life in turn of the century New York, before the luxuries of running water, waterborne sewerage and motor vehicles which I couldn’t help but feel ultimately added to the unhygienic food preparation conditions, which were exacerbated by the contamination of flies.
With sub-characters that illuminate Mary’s character, particularly the little boy she often has flash-backs about, while it is a remarkable portrayal of a strong-willed woman held captive by her times and one in which the author touches on social issues which continue to plague society today, it is also a brief lesson in both medical and American history, sure to hold lovers of this genre in its grip.
I wish to thank both Simon & Schuster and The Reading Room for providing me with a hard copy of this novel.
A Little About the Author (adapted from her website)
Mary Beth Keane is also the author of The Walking People (2009). She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction.
In 2011 she was named of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35. She lives just outside New York City with her husband and their two sons.