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Fever by Mary B Keane

Fever (original 2013; edition 2013)

by Mary B Keane

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3664329,640 (3.85)30
Authors:Mary B Keane
Info:Scribner (2013), Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Collections:NetGalley, Your library
Tags:Historical Novel, Typhoid Mary

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Fever by Mary B Keane (2013)



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Typhoid Mary seems to be one of the historical nicknames we come across at one point or another, usually in a brief mention, and forget about soon after. Though I teach history, I had heard very little of Mary Mallon's story prior to reading Mary Beth Keane's Fever.

In what is quickly becoming a popular genre, Keane takes the bits of what was known about Mary Mallon and pieces together a fictionalized biography of her life as one of the first healthy carriers of Typhoid fever. Mary spent her life and livelihood cooking for others until the Department of Health quarantined, and eventually charged her, for intentionally spreading the disease through the food she served.

While it is difficult to get a true sense of everyone's intentions from what has been left behind by history, Keane does a lovely job of writing a novel that is sympathetic to Mallon's side without making her out to be completely innocent. Instead, she is written as a strong, modern character who is able to handle the unimaginable situations she is thrown in without blame or self-pity.

Unfortunately, I felt the pacing was off a bit in the second half of Fever. What was fascinating and page-turning through the beginning became a little too cyclical as Mallon's decisions became repetitive. While I know Keane was following the character's historical choices, I think the story would have benefited from focusing on a shorter time frame, particularly around the trial.

Still, I think it's a very interesting read that is worth picking up. Keane writes her Typhoid Mary as a likable, fierce woman who we won't be quick to forget. ( )
  rivercityreading | Aug 10, 2015 |
FEVER by Mary Beth Keane breathes life into the too-often caricatured personality of Mary Mallon, better known (unfortunately) as Typhoid Mary. In fleshing out Mary Mallon’s harsh youth in Ireland, tenacious present in New York City and isolated future on North Brother Island in the East River, Keane replaces the “germ woman” of cartoons with a finely drawn, astonishingly healthy female cook whose talents in the kitchen netted her employment with such upper-crust families as the Fricks. Mary’s reluctance to cooperate with sanitary engineer Dr. Soper’s demands for isolation and testing makes perfect sense. She’s cooked for many people who did not become ill.

Keane raises concerns with the Department of Health’s coercive handling of Mary Mallon. There were other asymptomatic carriers (who had also caused deaths from typhoid) known to the department who were allowed to remain in the community.

Mary Beth Keane makes a daring choice to write the story such a well-known historical figure . We all know how it’s going to end; why bother reading? Because you will get to know Mary Mallon as a real human being, full of contradictions and hopes and disappointments; a person easily dismissed because of her gender, race and class.

The author seems very much at home in early 20th century New York City, somehow giving it a contemporary feel while grounded firmly in the details of the past. Keane’s lyric style finesses every scene and shows to great advantage in Mary Mallon’s self talk. You can almost hear the Irish accent coming off the page.

7.5 out of 10 Highly recommended to all ( )
  julie10reads | Jul 25, 2015 |
As novels go, this one is very easy to read - the narrative voice is clear and we follow 'Typhoid Mary's misadventure in what is her (fictitious) life before, during and after her trial. The characterisation is very good and we can follow her train of thoughts leading to her decisions - whether or not this was her true thoughts, I couldn't say, this is fiction after all. However, I find that there is a discrepancy between Mary's Irish upbringing, her day to day life with a good for nothing partner in a poor neighbourhood, and her 'educated', middle class internal monologues - her inner voice does not express itself save through the reader's interpretation; her actions are pretty much in opposition to her thoughts: we, as readers, forget that she is acting stupid for the whole novel because of this inner voice. This interference is most unnerving, because I suspect this inner voice is the author's, and she didn't put herself at the level of her character. The book did not convince me as such, this is why I rate it so. ( )
  soniaandree | Jun 24, 2015 |
A few years ago, I read Anthony Bourdain's biography of "Typhoid Mary," an Irish immigrant cook who unknowingly started an epidemic in early twentieth-century New York. Fever also focuses on Mary Mallon, but, being fiction, it gives her character more depth and creates empathy for the way she was hounded, isolated,villainized, and humiliated. Kean's story's antagonist is a Dr. Soper, the researcher who tracked down Mary as a healthy typhoid carrier and determined that the bacilli were passed on through her cooking. Never having been ill herself, Mary finds it hard to believe that she could be the source of the disease that had killed two of her employers' children and several others and had sickened a number of her coworkers. But in quieter moments, she ponders all the deaths she had attended in Ireland and on the ship crossing the Atlantic, and the death of an employer's toddler whom she had grown to love.

Kean covers Mary's forcible arrest and hospitalization, her exile to an island hospital for consumptives, her suit to be allowed to return to a relatively normal life--as long as she promises never again to work as a cook. She also provides a colorful yet sympathetic portrait of life for the working class in New York, ca. 1900-25. And then there is Mary's complicated relationship with Alfred, her German lover, with whom she has lived since the age of seventeen. I found this novel well written and engaging and recommend it to those interested in historical fiction of this period. ( )
1 vote Cariola | Apr 14, 2015 |
Mary Mallon, Typhoid Mary of history books, came alive in this novel - I have no idea of which parts of the book were true, but this woman's life was at times interesting, sad, painful and thought provoking. To be shunned and kept from the passions of her life because she was a carrier of typhoid at a time when science was just beginning to understand that one could be healthy and still infect others must have been a nightmare - for a brief time we live that nightmare with her and can almost understand why she continued to put others in danger -

I didn't love this book, but did feel a connection with Mary and feel that the author created a credible character - how much her Mary was based on the life of the woman who experienced this remains a mystery. ( )
  njinthesun | Feb 1, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
Keane evokes the atmosphere of the bustling and booming New York of the time to life as she details both Mary’s day-to-day life and the work of “sanitation engineer” Dr. George Soper, who uses basic detective work and the scientific method to trace the infections back to her. It’s this “one-two punch” the makes the novel so compelling.
added by KelMunger | editLit/Rant, Kel Munger (Jun 11, 2013)
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"Jesus Mercy"
--Mary Mallon's headstone
St. Raymond's Cemetery
Bronx, New York
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The day began with sour milk and got worse. (Prologue)
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Mary Mallon was a brave, headstrong Irish immigrant woman who journeyed alone to America, 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". 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 to 1910. She was released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary - spoiled by her former status and income and genuinely passionate about cooking - most domestic and factory jobs were abhorrent. She defied the edict.
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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.… (more)

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