A bold, mesmerizing novel about the woman known as "Typhoid Mary", the first known healthy carrier of typhoid fever in the early 20th century - by an award-winning writer chosen as one of "5 Under 35" by the National Book Foundation.
Mary Mallon was a courageous, headstrong Irish immigrant woman who bravely came to America alone, fought hard to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic service ladder, and discovered in herself an uncanny, and coveted, talent for cooking. Working in the kitchens of the upper class, she left a trail of disease in her wake, until one enterprising and ruthless "medical engineer" proposed the inconceivable notion of the "asymptomatic carrier" - and from then on Mary Mallon was a hunted woman.
In order to keep New York's citizens safe from Mallon, the Department of Health sent her to North Brother Island where she was kept in isolation from 1907-1910. She was released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary - spoiled by her status and income and genuinely passionate about cooking - most domestic and factory jobs were heinous. She defied the edict.
Bringing early 20th-century New York alive - the neighborhoods, the bars, the park being carved out of upper Manhattan, the emerging skyscrapers, the boat traffic - Fever is as fiercely compelling asTyphoid Mary herself, an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the hands of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes an extraordinarily dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable character.
©2013 Mary Beth Keane (P)2013 Simon & Schuster Audio
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!
The story of Typhoid Mary haunts our collective memory, from the time before vaccinations, antibiotics, or any understanding of the microscopic world. This was an era when disease seemed to descend out of nowhere and the only treatments available were cold baths, cold clothes and fervent prayers. So, a healthy carrier - an infectious person with no signs of the illness themselves - became the stuff of nightmares.
Instead of taking the perspective of the victims, however, Fever is told from Mary Mallon's point of view. I admit, I was skeptical because I've known how terrifying it is to watch a child get sicker and sicker and the true impotence of doctors in the face of the unknown. But I got drawn into her story. I believed the voice taking me step by step through Mary's decisions, even after she should have known better...
I'm wondering if the line between historical and fiction is getting too blurry, because I had to keep reminding myself this was fiction. But that's my only caveat. Recommend.
Easily entertained and amused.
The author did a remarkable job of fairly presenting all sides of the story without inserting judgment. It was well read with careful attention to the accents and inflections that defined each individual character. A good lesson in history, understanding the limitations of medical science in that time, and appreciating the blessings of medical science, today.
Rating scale: 5=Loved it, 4=Liked it, 3=Ok, 2=Disappointed, 1=Hated it. I look for well developed characters, compelling stories.
I agree with a previous reviewer who stated some difficulty remembering that this is a work of fiction because of the strength of the historical perspective. As long as Keane stuck with the Typhoid Mary story line, I found it riveting, and really appreciated how she was able to provide balance to the myth of an evil one-woman epidemic serving up a petrie dish of typhoid with all of her cooking. It was clear that in spite of all the warnings, she just did not believe that she could be the culprit in making so many people sick. Filth in the streets was so rampant, that typhoid was not the rare occurrence that it is today - no wonder Mary assumed the source had to be found elsewhere. The ethical dilema of personal rights and freedom vs the protection of the public's health is heartbreaking. Unfortunately Mary became her own worst enemy through her stubborness and bad temper.
Props for the excellent descriptive narrative making turn of the century New York real - the huge disparities in living conditions and in the insights into the medical science of the day. (Another reviewer has already eloquently stated the lack of trickle-down of the germ theory to the common man). Also props to Candace Thaxton's excellent narration, especially the subtle changes in accent when Mary was thinking or speaking.
Where Keane lost her way for a time was by over emphasizing the Alfred story line. Apparently one of the fictional aspects of the larger story, I found the long passages that focused on his substance abuse and journey to the midwest to be largely uninteresting and sadly stalled the forward movement of the real story, leaving Mary out altogether for very long stretches. I would have preferred more history and less fiction on that score. Minus one star for that lapse in literay judgement and lack of editing.
I haven’t written a book review in awhile but felt compelled to write this one. I enjoyed Mary Beth Keane’s the Walking People and once I heard the subject matter for this book, I was sold. A historic trial? A medical mystery? I couldn’t have picked a novel I more wanted to read.
I hope that is not a spoiler to note that Mary Mallon was the first well known ‘healthy’ carrier of Typhoid Fever. She was asymptomatic and since little was known about how sickness spread, it was hard for people to recognize the health risk she posed. She was a cook and though out breaks of Typhoid seemed to follow her wherever she was employed; she refused to believe she could be the source of the fever. Even after she was confronted with the possibility that she was spreading the fever. She refused to cooperate. She continued to cook until she was arrested and deatined. She wasn’t released for two years and only after agreeing not to cook. Despite all this, she cooks again. Changes her name and continues to cook until she is recaptured.
Enter Keane to deliver an entirely unexpected novelization of her life. The tendency to sort of side with Mary and vilify her treatment and compare it with others (non-working class males who may have received much better treatment) and conclude Mary was treated unfairly. Or try and convince readers that Mary’s recklessness led to unnecessary deaths even after the danger she posed to others was explained to her. Keane does something else. She seems to take both sides-- rallying a little for Mary and then highlighting her unsafe obstinacy. So the reader is both frustrated with and sympathetic towards, Mary.
Keane once again plays with time beginning somewhere in the middle of Mary’s story and then hopping all around throughout her life similar to her The Walking People narrative. Maybe more successfully this time, but I am still unsure why authors belabor this technique when a simple straightforward arc would serve.
What is known about Mary seems to all be spot on, but Keane adds a lot too. For instance additional deaths, a fabricated alcoholic live in lover, and a backstory are all provided. I’m torn too to what this all adds. A historical novelization works best for me when it holds as closely to the truth as possible. However these additive also provide period detail to further set Mary’s drama.
I am beginning to realize it sounds as if I am conflicted about the book which I am not. I highly recommend it for any historical fiction fans. Mary’s story horrified me, disgusted me, and baffled me in turns. I was genuinely engaged in Mary’s story from the very first through the last page.
And though the narrator slips in and out of an Irish accent inexplicably, she otherwise does a good job.
Business Physicist and Astronomer
This is indeed an interesting and well-written piece of fiction. However, even the most cursory dip into the available information on the real "Typhoid Mary" and you'll be shocked at how little of this book is based or even near the actual story. In fact, it's so far from Mary's story that I must drop stars because it pretends to be historical fiction.
Reading the other reviews really gave me a chill in that people believe they are reading history. The author borrowed a name and used a story as a backdrop to create a piece of fiction. It's disappointing. She could have called this Gonorrhea Sally and it would have been equally accurate.
So yes, the author can write an engaging story. It's a novel. But when a story is so far from reality I think it is inappropriate to use actual names. There is just too much distortion. The story would have been as good under a totally different name and then would not be guilty of gross manipulation of history.
By the way, the real story is better.
Read the book and enjoy it but don't think you're reading an historical novel. Even the language is wrong for the time.
The historical points of this topic (typhoid fever) interests me both as a nurse and as a person. But there was little history here. The fiction part was barely of interest. I can only imagine the horror of a young immigrant girl being accused of causing death wherever she went. And then to be quarantined for years with no legal recourse!! How frightening and frustrating! But the author chooses to dwell on Alfred at length ...why? Narration was excellent.
Keane offers a sympathetic portrayal of Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary. The story portrays early 20th Century New York and several important historical events seen through Mary's eyes.
Mary's long-term relationship was probably total fiction, but it helped to provide a narrative that allowed the author to string together the events in Mary's life. I think I would have liked this fictional Mary better than the historical Mary.
The author does a wonderful job transporting you into the early 1900's. It's not just how solid the characters are, but every detail of how live was at that time, plus real historical context of the events that were occurring then. I wish all history lessons came in this format! I also loved the narration. I am a big fan of theatrical narrators like Eduardo Ballerini, so I wasn't sure I was going to love this one when I started the book. But I was pleasantly surprise to find that the even tone and small fluctuation between characters added to the somberness of the story.
I don't know which was more mesmerizing, Mary Mallon's perceptions of her own life as woven by Mary Beth Keane, or Candace Thaxton's lovely and insightful narration. Vivid historical detail helps the reader enter Mary's life as a working class immigrant with no financial or social safety net, burdened by a public accusation she did not understand or accept. A grim and troubling portrait of the times and one courageous but flawed woman.
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