Published by Scribner
Publication date: March 12th 2013
Genres: Fiction, Historical
When Mary Mallon leaves Ireland for the United States in the late 1800s she has already seen too much of death—both of her parents, her sister, and her sister’s young children. Death holds little mystery for her but life in Manhattan is full of opportunity when her aunt teaches her to cook. Rather than live as a laundress, with her arms up the elbows in scalding hot water or mangled in a wringer, Mary dreams of being a cook in a fine household. Both her familiarity with death and her desires for freedom, as that most elevated of house servants, create a perfect storm in Mary. Mary Beth Keane brings her mindset to life in Fever, for Mary is none other than Typhoid Mary.
It isn’t until 1907 when she is working for a fine family that lives on the Upper East Side that a sanitary engineer working for the health department acts on the new belief that typhus is carried in germs and bacteria and brings Mary in for testing and observation. Through her work history she is associated with twenty-three cases of typhoid fever and three deaths. For the next three years Mary is kept in quarantine in a small cabin on an island in the East River near a hospital for patients with tuberculosis. It isn’t until other carriers of the disease are found and are not quarantined that she is able to leave—on one condition, she never cook professionally again.
Fever is a fascinating novel both from the perspective of its main character, Mary, but also from the perspective of the beliefs of the times. Great strides were being made in medicine it was still commonly accepted that opium, heroin, and cocaine were acceptable treatments for pain. Cities were overcrowded with poor ventilation in buildings and little or no sanitation services. It was also thought that typhus resided in the gallbladder and removal of the organ would cure the disease. Mary was pressured to have hers removed but resisted—a justifiable move on her part given the dangers of surgery at the time—and the theory was later discredited.
If the sociological aspects of Fever are interesting, the character of Mary Mallon as created by Mary Beth Keane is even more so. A young woman who came to New York at the age of fourteen in 1883 with no skills whatsoever has the determination to get ahead through hard work. She learns to cook and has such a natural aptitude for it that she is hired by wealthy families and known for her skills and innovation. In her personal life, she is just as unusual for the times. She meets her boyfriend, Alfred, in 1885 and although they soon move in together she has no interest in either marriage or children. They are together for over 25 years. She wants only to earn money and to be independent; to someday be able to have her own shop. This determination and lack of interest in marriage and children make her an oddity in her neighborhood but a highly regarded employee to all of her employers.
Both Mary Mallon and the overcrowded, bustling world of Manhattan in the early 1900s are brought to vibrant life by Keane’s prose and her ability to mesh historical facts with the intimate details of her character’s thoughts. We see the admirable side of Mary in her intelligence and desire to succeed as well as the frustrating and dogmatic side of her that refuses to acknowledge she could be a carrier of a disease without getting sick herself. At the same time, Keane explores life for her partner, Alfred, an uneducated German immigrant. His struggles to earn a living and provide for Mary in a city full of men like himself are painful. He can never measure up and while Mary’s grit and indomitable energy serve her well professionally they make her difficult for a man who doesn’t possess her strength. Their personal story unfolding alongside the stories of New York and the times make for engrossing reading.
Fever succeeds as a novel working with a historical premise. Mary Mallon elicits praise and anger in almost equal proportion. After being released from the island she violates the terms of her release and makes her way back into kitchens. She will not give up on her belief in herself but neither will she take any responsibility. It isn’t until she is brought back to North Brother Island in 1915 that
Staring across the broad Hudson at New Jersey, she also wondered whether it was possible for a person to know something and not know something at the same time. She wondered whether it was possible to know a truth, and then quickly un-know it, bricking up that portal of knowledge until every pinpoint of light was covered over.