Mary Mallon is an Irish immigrant simply doing her best to get by in a difficult world. At the turn of the twentieth century, few jobs are open to older women, but Mary has found her calling as a cook. By the time she hits her fifth decade, Mary has cooked for some of Manhattan’s most prominent families. But sickness follows her everywhere she goes, though she barely realizes it; after cooking for a few weeks, the family is inevitably hit by an illness that kills one or more of them. Mary never puts together the pieces, but others do, and soon she’s accused of spreading typhoid around New York and killing two dozen people.
Like many people, I’d heard of “Typhoid Mary” before; Mary Mallon was the case which helped doctors realize that seemingly healthy people could be carriers of illnesses. Imprisoned for a large chunk of her life to prevent her from spreading typhoid, Mary’s case spawned the discovery of numerous other healthy carriers and spurred us towards hygiene controls that prevent diseases spreading in quite the same way. But I’d never really thought about Mary as a person before, or what it must have felt like to realize that you’d been spreading illness when you really just wanted to make a living and cooking delicious food.
That’s the dilemma that faces Keane’s fictional version of Mary. While she’s convinced – at first – that she could never be the cause of the harm that has befallen these families, that little niggling doubt enters her mind. But that doubt isn’t enough for her to give up her livelihood, and that’s what Mary Mallon ends up imprisoned when others with her condition are allowed to go free, just not to spread their illnesses. What Keane does is give us a woman who is surprisingly convincing in her decisions, even when they’re bad. We can see how she fell into getting in trouble, how the doubts preyed on her mind but she refused to believe them, and even why she kept on working and making people sick.
When I first picked up this book, I was a little bit perplexed; very shortly after the beginning of the book, Mary is imprisoned and caught for her “crimes”, and goes fighting all the way. It seemed as though there was no real lead-up and no background, but what actually happens is that the background comes later. We understand her past in the context of her future, which was a great way to actually structure the book for those who might not know who “Typhoid Mary” was. It gives us context and only later do we see how she actually became a cook and fought for that job, understanding the background of the story once we get an idea of where it’s going. Towards the end of the book, chronological events fall back into order, and thus we finish it with a full sense of who Mary is.
I really enjoyed this book; it put a catch phrase and person on the fringes of my knowledge into full perspective and delivered a great story at the same time. I’d definitely recommend Fever to those interested in historical fiction.
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