Tampa, FL, United States | Member Since 2014
As William Gibson says, "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed", and it's hard to think of another time and place in history when this doesn't seem more true than the turn of the 19th century.
Fever is not only a fascinating snapshot of the seismic demographic and technological shifts that took place during the late 19th and early 20th century, but is also a truly compelling--and at times almost heartbreakingly tragic--story about a woman who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in history.
Because it becomes clear early on that "Typhoid Mary" was by no means the only one unwittingly spreading the typhoid bacteria around New York City and Long Island.
What made her so special was her profession as a private cook in a modern city, where it wasn't unusual for well-to-do families to hire their help as needed through reputable agencies, and where it wasn't unusual for a cook to work for a series of different employers over the years. And it also wasn't usual for an otherwise meticulous and starchy-clean servant to not make a point of washing her hands after using the bathroom or before preparing food.
Which seems so counter-intuitive today, but even though germ theory and the study of how bacteria and disease was spread were already well-developed fields among academics and scientists --I'm pretty sure Dr. Lister invented his antibacterial Listerine back around 1870? -- for some reason the whole concept of washing hands and sanitizing kitchens hadn't yet trickled down to the immigrant and working classes, even though they a were largely literate population. Like the future, such ideas were obviously not yet universally distributed.
Which was one of the reasons it was so so hard for Mary to believe it was anything but pure coincidence that so many she'd cooked for over the years got sick. Sure, people around her got fevers and some of them even died--where does that not happen? (In Ireland they called that Tuesday, ba dump bump) Throw in some all-too human defense mechanisms and guilt-borne denial (all brilliantly unfolded by the author) and you have a walking time bomb.
Which brings me to what I think made this book such a winner for me--the historical details alone would have been enough to keep me engaged, but Keane's character portrayal of Mary felt so authentic that I had to keep reminding myself this is historical fiction, not non-fiction. (Meticulously researched, no doubt--but much conjecture nonetheless.) Add to that the dramatic tension created by the two men in her life: the Javert-like Dr. Soper, and Alfred, the no-good bum she just can't stop lovin'--and it starts to read like a darned good screenplay.
I have to admit that I wasn't sure about the narrator at first; she started off a bit stiff and rote, with only a barely discernible Irish accent for Mary. But as Mary warmed and opened up to us, so did the passion in the narration. Whether this was a deliberate strategy or just a matter of Thaxton finding her rhythm I'm not sure, but either way it totally works.
Oh, and be forewarned: You'll probably be Googling throughout the book--for images of Mary and Dr. Soper, maps of the East River, the history of typhoid fever--just to name a few--so make sure you have access to an connected device before you start listening!
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