Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Fever - Review
Author: Mary Beth Keane
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 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.
Historical fiction, without a doubt, can bring history to life, erases the dull facts and fleshes out a story in a way that makes you keep reading, and when you finish that book, seek out more information. Fever by Mary Beth Keane tells the story of "Typhoid Mary" Mary Mallon in a way that the reader is enthralled with the tale of this poor woman. It is sympathetic and sensitive, and you will never think about Typhoid Mary the same way again.
Before reading this book, I was not familiar with the facts of Mary Mallon's life. I knew only of her notoriety as a pariah, and have even described myself as "Typhoid Mary" when I had the flu last winter. I wasn't sure what that meant, only that this woman was accused of killing people with her cooking, spreading her typhoid about recklessly.
Mary Mallon immigrated to the United States from Ireland as a young girl. Always talented in the kitchen, she soon moved up from laundress to cook. And unknowingly, left in her wake sickness, disease, and death. Mary was a proud woman, keeping her appearance neat and clean, confident of her abilities, sure of her talents. She was healthy and strong, slim and attractive. Then one day her turned upside down. Dragged from her world, literally. Taken by force by doctors who said her crime was spreading fever from her kitchens. How could it be her? She was healthy, never sick, could run up and down stairs and lift heavy pots from the stove without a problem, so how could she be causing illness? The doctors explained about germs, but this all seemed like magic to Mary.
They took her away, held her in isolation against her will, without even a trial or a lawyer.Without Mary being able to tell her friends and loved ones where she was going. She was just gone. They said they couldn't let her go, that she was a menace to the health and well being of society as a healthy carrier of typhoid. It was barbaric and an abuse of power. She was the first healthy carrier found, but she wasn't the last or the only one. But only Mary was not able to be free. Could it have been that she was a woman, Irish, a member of domestic service, and living with a man without the benefits of marriage that she was the only one to suffer this way? I think so. They built her a little cottage on North Brother Island, with a cot and an area to make tea, but she was not allowed to cook for herself or for others, especially for others. She had to provide stool and urine samples weekly. She was not allowed to contact anyone.
Keane's portrayal of Mary's suffering dignity, loneliness, humiliation, and confusion at what was happening was heartbreaking and dramatic. I could easily imagine what it would have been like in Mary's shoes. How scary it would have been. Yet she also describes Mary as intelligent, strong willed and determined to get off that island, taking matters into her own hands. She found a lawyer, paid for her own testing. Eventually she was allowed to leave the island, but on the condition that she never cooked again. You can imagine though, how at that time, being unable to use your most profitable skill would be frustrating. After working as a laundress, Mary found work as a cook again. This time at a hospital. And wouldn't you know it, a few weeks after she began, people started getting sick.
I couldn't put this book down. I was drawn into the story very easily, from the very first page. Keane's depiction of Mary Mallon made we want to read this book, and want to read more about her, the infamous Typhoid Mary. You will never think about her the same way again, after reading this book.