Fever by Mary Beth Keane
Unabridged, 9 hr. 53 min.
Simon & Schuster Audio
Candace Thaxton (Narrator)
March 12, 2013
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Audio download received from publisher for review
“On the eve of the twentieth century, Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to make her way in New York City. Brave, headstrong, and dreaming of being a cook, she fought to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic-service ladder. Canny and enterprising, she worked her way to the kitchen, and discovered in herself the true talent of a chef. Sought after by New York aristocracy, and with an independence rare for a woman of the time, she seemed to have achieved the life she’d aimed for when she arrived in Castle Garden. Then one determined “medical engineer” noticed that she left a trail of disease wherever she cooked, and identified her as an “asymptomatic carrier” of Typhoid Fever. With this seemingly preposterous theory, he made Mallon a hunted woman.
The Department of Health sent Mallon to North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910, then released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—proud of her former status and passionate about cooking—the alternatives were abhorrent. She defied the edict.
Bringing early-twentieth-century New York alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the park carved out of upper Manhattan, the boat traffic, the mansions and sweatshops and emerging skyscrapers—Fever is an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the imagination of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes a fiercely compelling, dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable heroine.”
I was drawn to this book the moment I heard it was about Mary Mallon, or Typhoid Mary. I didn’t know much about the woman at all, but from the propaganda I had heard about her, I was sure that she was getting something of a bad rap. I hoped that Keane would bring us a version of what Mallon might have been like as a real person – and that is exactly what we get from this book. Mary Mallon is presented to the reader as a woman who doesn’t understand the medical significance of being a healthy carrier and just wants to be able to live a regular life. She feels persecuted, hunted, treated unfairly, but isn’t the evil, intentional disease spreading devil that she was presented as by the media. She is such a believable character as it is easy to imagine that many people wouldn’t understand how someone could be a healthy carrier who spreads disease in her path.
Mary and her cohorts show us what it was like to be of the working class in New York City around the turn of the century. We see the dirty underbelly of the city and what those conditions led to: disease epidemics, the Triangle Fire, etc. These were some interesting scenes. I really, morosely, appreciated the first-person view of the Triangle Fire disaster. This has always been a topic of interest for me and I would love to know if this is something that Mary Mallon actually witnessed.
Keane does a great job of setting up the scenery for us – whether it is North Brother Island, New York City, or the backwoods of Minnesota. She has a way of showing much more than telling. These are vivid scenes which make the events seem all the more real.
I would have loved to have had a historical note included in the book. As there is so much information about Mary that has been tainted by propaganda and what is actually known about her is somewhat sparse, I would have loved to know what was real and what was the author’s imagination. I had the chance to listen to a book talk with the author last week and will be including some of what I found out in a post later this week.
The narration here was so wonderfully done. The narrator fit well into the role of Mary Mallon as she had an Irish accent that brought her even more to life. She also had a great pace to her reading and kept the plot interesting and moving.
Author Mary Beth Keane also has written The Walking People. You can visit her website for additional information about the book.
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