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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 20th-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 asTyphoid 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.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By karen on 01-27-16
"Faction" at its best
The word "faction" was coined shortly after Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" was published to categorize a book that tells a true story through the means of fiction. in Capote's brilliant book, the murders, the killers, the police in Capote's classic book were all real -- real people, real events. But Capote, like Mary Beth Keane in this book, made up conversations, revealed the innermost thoughts and personal details of the real-life characters -- all things no one else could really have known, other than the individuals themselves.
As other readers have suggested, I too, was googling throughout the book, wondering how much was true and how much was made up, fictionalized. What I found is that the basic story of "Typhoid Mary" was all true -- her origins, her work history, her reactions to her situation, her incarcerations, the conditions in which she was kept, etc etc. All of that was accurately set forth. What maybe wasn't true -- or at least what a casual search doesn't verify -- are the details of her relationship with Alfred, his foray into Minnesota (another compelling story!) Mary's various employers, landladies and co workers. But the facts of the story as written are true -- and fascinating.
I was captivated by the whole tale, one I hadn't paid much attention to before. If anything, I wish there'd been even more historical details about the New York area at that time, about the people who were making decisions regarding Mary, and even a bit of the science involved. I would have been delighted with another 200 pages of that kind of thing.
But? What was there was interesting, the conditions under which immigrants lived, how they took in "boarders", rented out rooms, slept as many people as possible throughout the house, not just in bedrooms. Food details captured my interest, too -- the dishes Mary liked to make, her journeys to buy groceries, what was available, her passion for cooking, even after she knew -- or should have known -- what was happening to people who ate what she'd cooked.
All in all, a wonderfully listenable book -- I'd love to come across more like this. This is a book I will eventually listen to again.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
By Sand on 04-02-13
A vivid and revealing slice of NYC history
As William Gibson says, "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed", and it's hard to think of another time and place in history when this doesn't seem more true than the turn of the 19th century.
Fever is not only a fascinating snapshot of the seismic demographic and technological shifts that took place during the late 19th and early 20th century, but is also a truly compelling--and at times almost heartbreakingly tragic--story about a woman who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in history.
Because it becomes clear early on that "Typhoid Mary" was by no means the only one unwittingly spreading the typhoid bacteria around New York City and Long Island.
What made her so special was her profession as a private cook in a modern city, where it wasn't unusual for well-to-do families to hire their help as needed through reputable agencies, and where it wasn't unusual for a cook to work for a series of different employers over the years. And it also wasn't usual for an otherwise meticulous and starchy-clean servant to not make a point of washing her hands after using the bathroom or before preparing food.
Which seems so counter-intuitive today, but even though germ theory and the study of how bacteria and disease was spread were already well-developed fields among academics and scientists --I'm pretty sure Dr. Lister invented his antibacterial Listerine back around 1870? -- for some reason the whole concept of washing hands and sanitizing kitchens hadn't yet trickled down to the immigrant and working classes, even though they a were largely literate population. Like the future, such ideas were obviously not yet universally distributed.
Which was one of the reasons it was so so hard for Mary to believe it was anything but pure coincidence that so many she'd cooked for over the years got sick. Sure, people around her got fevers and some of them even died--where does that not happen? (In Ireland they called that Tuesday, ba dump bump) Throw in some all-too human defense mechanisms and guilt-borne denial (all brilliantly unfolded by the author) and you have a walking time bomb.
Which brings me to what I think made this book such a winner for me--the historical details alone would have been enough to keep me engaged, but Keane's character portrayal of Mary felt so authentic that I had to keep reminding myself this is historical fiction, not non-fiction. (Meticulously researched, no doubt--but much conjecture nonetheless.) Add to that the dramatic tension created by the two men in her life: the Javert-like Dr. Soper, and Alfred, the no-good bum she just can't stop lovin'--and it starts to read like a darned good screenplay.
I have to admit that I wasn't sure about the narrator at first; she started off a bit stiff and rote, with only a barely discernible Irish accent for Mary. But as Mary warmed and opened up to us, so did the passion in the narration. Whether this was a deliberate strategy or just a matter of Thaxton finding her rhythm I'm not sure, but either way it totally works.
Oh, and be forewarned: You'll probably be Googling throughout the book--for images of Mary and Dr. Soper, maps of the East River, the history of typhoid fever--just to name a few--so make sure you have access to an connected device before you start listening!
13 of 14 people found this review helpful