Mary Beth Keane appeared on my radar when she was booked for Writers in the Loft in Portsmouth, NH. I wanted to read one of her books prior to her reading and the idea of a book about Typhoid Mary just seemed intriguing. Readers of Fever will not be disappointed.
Keane does a great job at establishing a powerful sense of place - New York City in the first fifth of the twentieth century. The crowds, the odors, the filth, the joys of a thriving city all serve as a backdrop for this novel. Her depiction of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is among the best I have ever read.
Mary Mullan is an Irish immigrant who displays a rather uncommon independence while earning a living as a cook. She excels and her talent, intelligence, and work ethic make it possible for her to work for some of the wealthiest families in the city. Her own domicile, however, is far more humble. There she lives with Alfred, a German immigrant who occasionally works hard but is easily swayed by alcohol and perceived unfair treatment by anyone and everyone. But Mary and Alfred have a sort of unhealthy need for each other so they consistently make their way back to each other.
Mary is first accused of being a non-symptomatic carrier of typhoid after several clients of hers become ill and die. The science behind the accusation is rather shoddy but the fear of the spread of the deadly fever outweighs legalities. Mary is isolated on an island in New York Harbor and utilized as a living sample donor. Her internal strength under such terrifying circumstances causes her to fight her captivity through the legal system. Eventually released from her isolation, Mary is forbidden from employment as a cook. But what can Mary do for work? Is she really free from the power of the Department of Health? She has so much to do.
Undoubtedly, Keane's selection of Typhoid Mary as a protagonist for a novel may be unlikely but historical fiction thrives when readers can peer into the lives of the ordinary struggling through the extraordinary.