Reviewed by June J. McInerney
Mary Mallon, an asymptomatic carrier, harbored the bacteria salmonella typhi in her intestines. Never ill herself, she unknowingly infected members of upper-class families for whom she cooked. Five people, including two children she loved, died. Dr. George A. Soper, a Department of Health sanitary engineer, doggedly tracked her down as the source of the 1906 Oyster Bay outbreak of Typhoid Fever. Against her will, she was quarantined on North Brothers Island in New York’s East River until a hearing determined her unfitness to live in normal society. Vilified with the sobriquet “Germ Lady” and then “Typhoid Mary”, she spent three years in isolation before being released with the promise she would never work as a cook again.
But Mary was a strong-willed, haughty woman. An Irish immigrant who used her culinary skills to rise above poverty, she stubbornly defied authority, convention, and mores only to become infamous. A fictionalized account of her life is stunningly told in Fever (March 2013), the pseudo-documentary 306-page historical novel by Mary Beth Keane. Keane, a 2011 fellow of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” authors, boldly paints in intimate details a stark, insightful portrait of a proud, often misunderstood, intractable woman who unwittingly, through a quirk of nature coupled with unsanitary kitchen practices, became the epitome of disease and death. Despite her nefarious subject, Keane shows great sympathy for Mary as she objectively portrays aspects of her multi-faceted persona, including a troubled long romantic attachment to Alfred; struggles to maintain friendships in the face of adversities; and, ultimately, an obstinately paranoid refusal to believe that she was the cause of so much illness and so many deaths.
Typhoid Mary’s image has been unduly tarnished, as Keane intimates, primarily because of publicity and notoriety caused by misinformed newspaper reporters and unfounded rumors; Dr. Soper’s persistent bullying in his relentless pursuit of her while advancing his own career; and, more importantly, by her own flaws, obdurate mistakes, and unclean cooking methods. Keane pulls no punches offering both sides of Mallon’s story through pertinent details couched in realistic dialogue, explanatory flashbacks, and descriptive passages that vividly bring to life the tumultuous times in New York City during the early 1900s. Keane also imaginatively augments her story with Mary’s own deeply emotional thoughts and feelings. While most are fictionalized, they effectively depict the real essence of a real woman whose only real crime was her failure to accept the truth and take full responsibility for her actions.
I anticipated Fever to be a ghastly dull, grim and gory novel. Instead, I found it fast-paced and intensely mesmerizing. Keane is a straightforward, talented writer who has courageously authored an unbiased and tasteful look into the life of a woman whom we should try to understand, rather than continue to vilify. Keane’s book, recommended for mature readers, is a worthwhile serious endeavor to do just that.
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