Sunday, November 18, 2012
digital ARC provided by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley
Description from Goodreads:
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 twentieth-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 as Typhoid 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.
Fever by Mary Beth Keane was such a compelling book. I started reading it just to get a sense of the book; I had intended to finish another book I was already reading first. That plan failed miserably. Once I started reading, I couldn't stop until I had finished the book. Another intriguing thing was that when I wasn't reading, but living my life, taking care of everyday things, I found myself thinking about Mary Mallon and how different her life was from my own.
The world that Mary Mallon - or Typhoid Mary, as most of us know her - was a much bleaker, dirtier, tougher world than we inhabit today. Her New York is the New York of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, of the six and seven day work week, of morphine and opium prescriptions, of rampant fevers of various sorts, of little to no social services.
Mary left her native Ireland after losing her family one by one. She was tough, and courageous and a hard worker. Mary is quick to see insult even when it isn't actually there. She is sensitive to others' views of herself and she is quick to anger. She isn't the most sympathetic character, but as I read Fever, I did find myself feeling sympathetic towards her plight. While, Mary can be tough to like, I found her to be very human. Mary Mallon may not have been the most likable person, but she was a person and she had feelings and she wasn't treated very well by the authorities.
Mary's story was fascinating and I enjoyed learning about how the discovery of the "asymptomatic carrier" and how the Department of Health decided to handle the situation and all the subsequent problems. But I also enjoyed just reading about the New York of the time. The novel presents a very vivid and realistic picture of the way life was lived during the time period.
I would highly recommend Fever to all those who love a good historical novel, are interested in the history of medicine, or are interested in Typhoid Mary in particular. I would also suggest it as one of those books that help to give a sense of a time period and specifically New York City of the early 1900's.