At the turn of the last century, Irish immigrant Mary Mallon, nicknamed Typhoid Mary by the press, was the first identified asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever.
In her profession as a cook in the New York City area, Mary transmitted typhoid fever to dozens of people, many of whom died. Tracked down by the dogged “sanitary engineer” George A. Soper, she was quarantined twice.
In 1907, she was detained for three years on tiny North Brother Island located in New York’s East River. During that time, as other healthy carriers were identified and allowed to live freely in society, Mary’s imprisonment became somewhat arbitrary. After promising never to cook professionally, she was released. Using a false name, Mary went back to cooking and sickness followed in her wake. In 1915, while working in the kitchen of the Sloane Maternity Hospital as Mary Brown, she was recaptured by the vigilant Soper and returned to North Brother Island where she was a permanent guest of the state until her death in 1938.
Keane’s Mary is pugnatious, proud, ambitious, and not entirely likeable. At first Mary doesn’t believe that she can carry the disease. After all she’s not sick, nor is her live-in boyfriend, or the many friends and neighbors for whom she prepared meals over the years. However, ignorance turns to willful blindness as the science and the bodies pile up. Mary knows, but doesn’t want to know.
“She wondered whether it was possible to know a truth, and then quickly unknow it, bricking up that portal of knowledge until every pinpoint of light was covered up.”
If Fever had not been a book club selection, I doubt if I would have picked it up. But I enjoyed the complicated and not entirely unsympathetic Typhoid Mary and Keane’s vivid depiction of upstairs/downstairs life in bustling turn of the century New York City.
WHAT OTHER REVIEWERS THINK
Vogue: “A fascinating turn-of-the-last-century-set medical cat-and-mouse story, Mary Beth Keane’s Fever summons sympathy for the contrary personality at its center, a self- made immigrant grappling with work and love, dignity and denial.”
WHO WROTE IT
Mary Beth Keane was born in New York City to Irish parents. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. Fever was named a Best Book of 2013 by the San Francisco Chronicle, Library Journal, and NPR.