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Fever casts a brilliant light over the life of a figure once described as 'the most dangerous woman in America'. Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant in turn-of-the-century New York, is headstrong and brave, a woman who has battled fiercely to better her lot in life and keep her wayward lover Alfred on the straight and narrow. She works her way up the ranks to cook for the wealthiest families in Manhattan, but leaves a trail of death and disease in her wake. When she is imprisoned in complete isolation, despite being perfectly healthy herself, she refuses to understand her paradoxical situation. Condemned by press and public alike, she is branded a murderer, but continues to fight for her freedom. Mary Beth Keane's fictional account is as fiercely compelling as Typhoid Mary herself and Keane presents us with a very cleverly wrought conundrum: was Mary Mallon a selfish monster, or was she a hounded innocent? It's up to the reader to decide.
This well-written historical novel held my interest from the first page to the last. Written about Mary Mallon, better known as "Typhoid Mary," the author deftly brings to life the characters of Mary and her long-time partner, Alfred. Mary Beth Keane does an excellent job in describing what life was like at the turn of the 20th century, shortly after Mary Mallon immigrated from Ireland and gained employment as a servant -- first as a laundress and then as a cook. I highly recommend this novel for anyone interested in the history of medicine and social conditions in New York during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Having heard of the disease Typhoid, but possibly because I am not an avid follower of American history, I was astounded to learn that the disease had a face – Mary Mallon. Do you wash your hands before preparing food?

Born in September 1869, Mary Mallon was the first known person in the United States to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the bacilli associated with Typhoid Fever. This novel, albeit fictional, is based on historical fact, and gives a plausible account focusing mainly on the Mary’s life before her first incarceration until her voluntary re-institutionalisation which continued until her death.
Through her work as a cook for a host of wealthy families, Irish immigrant Mary was arrested in 1907 at the age of forty after being accused of spreading this dangerous disease which then, had a high incidence of mortality and morbidity. Enter Dr George Soper, the sanitary engineer who played a large role in the arrest of Mary. Whilst not much was known about the disease at the turn of the century, Dr Soper played an integral part in researching this disease and while I found his singling out of Mary to be a bit unfair and unjust, which had me seething at times (after all, there were other carriers out there), I guess it was a necessary evil for further research to be carried out, even though not much regard was had to her rights but rather that of the larger community.

On incarceration at North Brother Island, Mary was subjected to sharing quarters with Tuberculosis patients and, coming from South Africa, a country which has an extremely high incidence of TB, I am most surprised that she, too, didn’t contract this debilitating communicable disease which, even by today’s medical standards, is sometimes fatal. She was eventually moved to a little cottage on the island which was built especially for her and, whilst enjoying the solitude of her own quarters, befriends one of the minor characters, the institution’s gardener.

Not forgetting her long-time partner, Alfred, a man who loves her intensely but who is a hopeless drunk frequently adding to his status of unemployment, Mary engages in correspondence to him but the intervals between letters become longer and the writing less. With the Government unjustly enforcing her exile, as well as constantly being hounded to undergo an operation to remove her gall bladder, Mary, quite rightly, begins to feeling victimised and seeks the advice of various lawyers through postal communication, without much success. She finally receives a letter from one who is prepared to take on her case, with no expectation of payment, and so begins a campaign to prove her innocence. After garnering quite a bit of sympathy with the public and as a result of her lawyer’s brilliance and her court appearance, Mary is finally released on condition that she never again cook for anyone.

Of course, with the success in one aspect of her life, there must surely come a price and that price appears to emanate in the form of Alfred, whom I felt to be extremely weak in character. Nonetheless, they did appear to love one another and after not having seen him for many months, they resume their relationship and Mary goes out of her way to support him, even though she sometimes treats him like a child. For reasons which become apparent to the reader in the dialogue, whilst Mary had been incarcerated, Alfred had endeavoured to overcome his dependence on alcohol by beginning a new medical treatment for his disease – a treatment which led to more serious problems and ultimately debilitated, then consumed him. With Mary not bringing in much in the form of earnings as a laundress, and knowing of no other way to counter their dire financial circumstances, she felt there was no other option but to take up her previous profession as a cook. The consequences, however, see Alfred becoming a shell of the man he once was and Mary, after a tragic turn of events, volunteering for re-incarceration at North Brother Island where she lived out the remainder of her life.

There is a distinct air of melancholy throughout the novel amid the vivid descriptions of life in turn of the century New York, before the luxuries of running water, waterborne sewerage and motor vehicles which I couldn’t help but feel ultimately added to the unhygienic food preparation conditions, which were exacerbated by the contamination of flies.

With sub-characters that illuminate Mary’s character, particularly the little boy she often has flash-backs about, while it is a remarkable portrayal of a strong-willed woman held captive by her times and one in which the author touches on social issues which continue to plague society today, it is also a brief lesson in both medical and American history, sure to hold lovers of this genre in its grip.

Inspired by a true story this novel blends historical facts into an interesting, more human tale of a hard working, determined woman and the disease that stalked her life.

Mary Mallon, known as Typhoid Mary, is given a face and character in this novel. Immigrating to America as a girl, working hard as she struggled to make her life better she never knew, then, wouldn't believe, that she was a danger to those around her.

Seizing the opportunity to get herself out of the laundry and do the one thing she loved doing, cooking, was Mary's idea of success. Working for rich families, in well stocked kitchens got her out of her own small digs she shared with her partner Alfred. Mary's strength, though, seemed to be Alfred's weakness, never able to hold down a job, unable to stay off the booze, meant Mary needed and wanted, to work harder and harder.

When finally the illnesses and deaths were traced to Mary, she would NOT believe it, she wasn't ill, therefore she couldn't have caused anyone to be sick. Her frustration, anger and fierceness are well expressed in the story, the reader can not help but feel doubt and disbelief, in her guilt and her situation.

Isolated and detained for over 2 years Mary keeps fighting for her freedom even with the press against her and Alfred deserting her.

The story unfolds further as Mary is released on certain conditions, but circumstance, opportunity and finally desperation see her once again putting lives at risk.

'Fever' is a great read, I'd definitely recommend it. Thank you Reading Room for the opportunity.

How many times do you wash your hands each day? Do you shower regularly? Clean with disinfectants, bleach, hot soapy water? Mary Beth Keane’s novel ‘Fever’ takes us back to a day when all of these things were unheard of, and where, instead, death and disease lurked around every corner, among the heaving piles of garbage and human waste that lined the city streets.

Immigrating from Ireland to New York in 1884, Mary Mallon worked hard to establish herself in the working class. From a young age she worked her way up to becoming a well established cook. She has a genuine knack for food and cooking, for menu ideas, and how to make the most out of the often limited supplies available to her. Mary is proud of what she has achieved in her life, and for good reason – she has held a number of ‘situations’ for important and wealthy New York families.

However, death and disease seem to follow Mary where ever she goes. It doesn’t alarm her though – after all, in the early 1900s, people did, quite often, get sick. Once they got sick, they often died. Mary was a compassionate woman, caring tenderly for any members of the families she worked for if they got sick.Until one day when her life is uprooted by one Dr Soper, who believes her to be a carrier of Typhoid, spreading the fever through her cooking. Dr Soper is abrupt and rude in his interactions with Mary, treating her like a low-class idiot. Not surprisingly, strong-willed, quick tempered Mary refuses to submit to his request for urine and stool samples, writing his claims off as ridiculous and going about her work. Until she gets taken away, quarantined on a small island for what may as well be, the rest of her life.
Mary Beth Keane’s novel seamlessly bridges the gap between fact and fiction, bringing to life a historical character with compassion and empathy. Prior to reading this, I could only vaguely recollect the name ‘Typhoid Mary’, as she was so dubbed. I knew little about this period in history nor this woman, and I found that this was the perfect blank slate to begin reading Fever. I think if I had known more of the facts, I would question if the author had everything right, I would ask how she knew what Mary or any of the other characters felt – but reading this without any background knowledge or prejudices I was happy to get swept up in the story.

I was impressed by the imagery created in this novel, of both the New York landscape and of Mary’s long time partner, Alfred. A drunk, later a drug addict, with no ability to hold down a steady job – I imagine he was part of the reason Mary felt like she couldn’t give up her work as a cook. To put it simply, they needed the money. But there was more to it than that – Mary had a strong sense of pride. After years of working for some of the best families, she felt it was beneath her to work in a laundry or any other menial job, and it was this that was her ultimate downfall.

The characters of Dr Soper and the other medical professionals were infinitely infuriating - rather than trying to explain things to Mary, they treated her like an imbecile. They punished her for being strong-willed and believed that her temper and pride made her a ‘bad’ woman. She was stripped of her rights and refused legal representation. She wasn’t even allowed to contact Alfred to tell him what had happened – it took months for them to get in contact via mail.Of course the argument could be made that Mary’s attitude did little to help the situation – she didn’t cooperate, she didn’t apologise and, once she had left the island, she didn’t continue to check in. She outright refused to abide by the order to never cook again.

And yet, Mary Beth Keane has created in Typhoid Mary a woman that we feel for deeply, a woman that we feel frustrated for, even when she goes about putting more and more people in danger. We wish she knew, like we know, what she was doing – but accept that she was just trying to maintain a life for herself. This is where the author has done a great job, in eliciting compassion for a character who, right up until her old age, refuses to admit she has done anything wrong.

It is only in the last pages of the book that Mary looks back over her life and wonders if she has, in fact, caused the deaths that she has been accused of. It is only then that she asks forgiveness, and it is then that she completely wins the reader’s heart.

My final thoughts: an intriguing, soft-history factual fiction with an intense female lead. 3.5/5

Fever is a fascinating novel that mixes historical fact and a fictional narrative to tell the tale of ‘Typhoid Mary’, the woman held responsible for several deadly outbreaks of the disease in the US around the turn of the nineteenth century.

In 1907, Mary Mallon was arrested at the direction of the Department of Health. A forty year old, unmarried, Irish immigrant cook she stood accused of spreading Typhoid, a bacterial disease transmitted by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person, among the New York households she worked for over a period of several years. Her role was identified by Dr George Soper, a health researcher who discovered that Mary was the link between outbreaks, despite the fact she remained asymptomatic. Mary felt victimised by the state who tried to force her to have surgery to remove her gallbladder (thought at the time to be the host of the disease) and when that failed exiled her to North Brother Island, a Quarantine hospital in the middle of the East River where she eventually spent over 30 years in isolation until her death in 1938.

There was little sympathy at the time for Mary Mallon, who caused the illness of as many as 50 persons, the death of three and likely more. Mary Beth Keane attempts to humanise Typhoid Mary in this novel and illustrate the possible thought process of the woman accused of willfully spreading deadly disease. I am familiar with only the basics of the case (see Wikipedia for an outline) so I am not sure where exactly Keane’s imagination merges with known facts but the author brings some balance to the prevailing view of the ‘evil’ woman who fought the Health Deapartment every step of the way, and later flaunted their decree she was never to cook again.

Mary does prove to be a sympathetic character in Fever, even though she has a temper and a tendency to make poor decisions. Keane focuses on the period between Mary’s arrest and her second period of exile, sharing the details of Mary’s ordinary day to day life with her common law relationship with Alfred Breihof, a feckless drunk who was often unemployed. Personally I found the chapters focusing on her relationship, or following Alfred, a distraction from Mary’s story though it does add depth to her character. Still, I was far more intrigued by Mary’s reaction to her vilification as Typhoid Mary. It’s understandable that Mary would find it difficult to believe Dr Soper’s claims that she was the cause of Typhoid outbreaks, especially given it was a common disease whose cause and mode of transmission was unknown. Accused of creating a trail of illness and death Mary fought the medical establishment, dodging the Dr Soper, refusing testing and denying her culpability. It is also clear that Mary was victimised by the Health Department which took advantage of her status to impose unreasonable demands on her. Despite several larger outbreaks being traced to other asymptomatic carriers soon after Mary’s arrest, she was the only one arrested and forcibly exiled, mainly it seems because the other identified carriers were men with family and money, who could not be as easily bullied.

Mary’s case raises interesting moral and ethical questions about public health and safety, asking for example, if the rights of one individual outweigh the safety of many. It is also a fascinating glimpse of medical knowledge and sanitation in the early 1900′s. Remarkably most of the cases of Typhoid fever could have been avoided with the simple act of hand washing.
Fever is also a vivid portrait of New York City at the turn of the century and particularly of the lifestyle of the ‘servant’ class. From streets heaped with garbage to rooms crowded with tenants, basic hygiene and sanitation was practically non existent, encouraging diseases that could have been easily eradicated.

The provocative tale of an enigmatic historical figure, Fever is a compelling read. Keane skillfully infuses historical fact with imagined personality to creating an entertaining and intriguing tale which should appeal to a wide audience.

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