FEVER by Mary Beth Keane. Publisher: Scribner (March 12, 2013) Historical fiction. Hardcover. 352 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4516-9341-6
Opening sentences: “The day began with sour milk and got worse. You were too quick, Mary scolded herself when the milk was returned to the kitchen in its porcelain jug with a message from Mr. Kirkenbauer to take better care. He was tired, Mary knew, from the child crying all night, and moaning, and asking to be rocked. And he was worried.”
It’s 1907 at the beginning of FEVER and Mary Mallon’s dragged off, kicking and screaming, by authorities. They tell her she’s transmitting typhoid through her cooking which she refuses to believe as she’s never been sick herself. Leading the charges is Dr. Soper, a sanitary engineer. Mary’s taken to North Brother Island where tuberculosis patients and others with communicable diseases go to be kept far away from the general population. She must provide blood, urine and stool sample for years.
“At night, she slept with the sheet over her face in case she might breathe in their disease, but after a week she stopped worrying. During the day, she couldn’t stop herself from flaunting her health, walking back and forth by the windows, asking the nurses if she could be of assistance.”
How would it feel to be told you are the first identified carried of typhoid bacilli in America and people are dying because of you? Hello Typhoid Mary! Did Mary Mallon believe she was innocent? Did she ever truly understand the causality between being asymptomatic and transmitting through her cooking? These are questions that author Mary Beth Keane attempts to answer. She writes with empathy and detailed realism about the brutal immigrant experience at the turn of the 20th century. Life for a single working uneducated Irish woman in New York certainly wasn’t easy at this time. Her options were few: cleaning woman, laundress, cook [with experience and references]. Mary Mallon worked extremely hard and managed to secure positions with the wealthiest New York families and to garner excellent wages.
Mallon’s a compelling woman. Independent. Strong. Lives with a man but never marries him. Mary supports Alfred despite his alcoholism and inability to sustain work. He doesn’t exactly stick by her when it seems she might be on the North Brother Island for an extended stay. And on and off Mary Mallon was kept on North Brother Island for 26 years. In FEVER, Mallon often thinks that because she’s a woman Dr. Soper and other doctors treat her differently. This may have been the case. When the Department of Health discovers other asymptomatic typhoid carriers, they aren’t shipped off to North Brother Island. Although unlike Mallon, most agree to the terms: to stop handling food products, for instance.
“Some of the doctors had intimated that she was not right in her mind, that her mental state was part of the reason she could not be trusted, along with her being a woman, and being an immigrant, and being the kind of woman who lived with a man without being married.”
After writing to countless attorneys, one takes her case. Mallon manages to get probation. She’s told not to cook again after she’s released from North Brother Island but she finds a job at a bakery reasoning that baking and cooking can’t be considered the same things. This’ll make you chuckle and wince and shout to Mary. Dr. Soper chases Mary Mallon like Ahab chased Moby Dick. He never gives up. He finds her. She later re-kindles her relationship with Alfred and goes into hiding, taking in laundry for her neighbors. But Mary cannot stop doing what she adores doing. She starts cooking for her neighbors for a fee. Work gets around. Someone offers her work as the cook for a hospital. Soon there’s another typhoid outbreak. The gig is up for good.
FEVER gets into Mallon’s mind and heart featuring some heartbreaking scenes. It’s about justice, fear and how we treat disease. Truly a fascinating and engrossing read.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Simon and Schuster.
Mary Beth Keane will be at Brookline Booksmith on Monday, March 18 at 7pm.