Fever: A Novel

By Mary Beth Keane

(Scribner, $26, 306 pages)

Who is this author?

Mary Beth Keane, a writer honored in 2011 by inclusion in the 5 Under 35 list of worthy young authors by the National Book Foundation, is, like her subject, Mary Mallon, of Irish extraction. She was born in New York City, the site she vividly brings to life in this novel and now lives in Pearl River, N.Y. with her husband and sons. She also is the author of “The Walking People” (2010), another well-received saga of the Irish immigrant experience.

What is this book about?

“Typhoid Mary,” as the cook named Mary Mallon came to be known, was the first person in America to be shown as a carrier of deadly typhoid fever who never herself was afflicted with the disease. At the turn of the 20th century, she came to New York from Ireland as a teenager with ambition to better herself,  and by hard work and cleverness, she became a chef for wealthy families. Sadly, however, she infected those families with a horrible disease, unknowingly, and eventually was identified by a health researcher as the source of their fatal illness. Quarantined on North Brother Island from 1907 to 1910 by health authorities, she was released after a promise never to work as a cook again – a promise that, for personal and financial reasons, she did not keep. Eventually, she found work in the kitchen at a maternity hospital, with horrible results. The book tells her story clearly and fairly, explaining to readers what drove Mary to make her bad choices and presenting a rounded portrait of this very complicated, very
culpable, yet in some ways sympathetic woman.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s a medical detective story, it’s vivid historical fiction about life in early New York City, it’s a portrait of a headstrong, complex woman and it’s a morality tale that raises difficult ethical questions. That’s pretty impressive for a relatively short book. You probably have heard the epithet “Typhoid Mary” tossed around to describe anyone who trails disease or dysfunction behind her. Here you will learn, through fiction that illuminates the actual facts, how Mary Mallon’s name entered history and what the world learned from her frightening but fascinating story.

What others are saying:  

“Keane has replaced the ‘Typhoid Mary’ cliché with a memorable and emotional human story,” says Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A fictional portrait of Typhoid Mary, the Irish immigrant cook who spread disease and death among the cramped, unsanitary streets of turn-of-the-century New York. Opening with the arrest of Mary Mallon in 1907, Keane ,,, moves back and forth across several decades to flesh out the famous plague carrier’s character against a detailed social panorama. Mallon’s arrival in 1883; her work ethic and ambition to rise from laundress to cook; her peculiar loyalty to work-shy Alfred Briehof, the alcoholic who refused to marry her–all these provide context as Keane explores Mary’s treatment at the hands of the Department of Health. Quarantined first in a hospital and later on North Brother Island for two years, the “Germ Woman” eventually finds a sympathetic lawyer who works for her release on condition she never cooks for others. Liberated, Mary returns to laundry work  in the city. Plague carrier she may be, but Keane’s Mallon is a fiercely independent woman grappling with work, love, pride and guilt. Exhausted by the laundry and yearning to cook, Mary becomes a baker but is discovered by her nemesis, Dr. Soper. On the run, reunited with now morphine-addicted Alfred, she starts cooking at Sloane Maternity Hospital until realization and responsibility become unavoidable. A memorable biofiction that turns a malign figure of legend into a perplexing, compelling survivor.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Keane … rescues Typhoid Mary from her “cautionary tale” status by telling her true story. Apprehended by the New York Department of Health in 1907, following the deaths of the family for whom she cooks, Mary Mallon is turned into a guinea pig on an East River island with little to comfort her aside from rare letters from her lover Alfred. Slowly she builds a case to win her freedom and returns to a changed New York of Chinese laundries, tenement fires, and Alfred, now-destitute. Dogged by her reputation as a tainted woman, Mary defies the virus she carries by doing what she does best, even as her nemesis—the “medical sleuth” Dr. Soper (the novel’s most engaging figure)—hounds her from kitchen to kitchen. ….we don’t entirely understand why Mary never seems to grasp the consequences of her actions. Still, as historical fiction, “Fever” seldom disappoints in capturing the squalid new world where love exists in a battlefield both biological and epochal.”

“What’s of paramount interest here is the mind of a woman who could not and would not understand why, being herself in good health, she sickened others, and then, when the evidence became overwhelming, got twisted up in grotesque knots of delusion, paranoia and self-deception…until finally, inevitably, almost gratefully she gave in…It’s in the tender, detailed portrayal of willed ignorance collapsing in the face of truth that Mary Beth Keane has made of Mary Mallon’s life a fine novel of moral blindness, and also remorse, of a sort,” says The New York Times Book Review.

Historical Novels Review says: “[An] excellent novel…Keane takes the facts and spins a probable life in such a way that one cannot help but cheer Mary on despite the knowledge that she carried potential death with her at all times. Looking back on Typhoid Mary a century later, Keane has given her the justice that eluded her during her lifetime.”

When is it available?

“Fever” is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain Branch.

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